Psalm 103

It’s been almost a year since I wrote my post about why you should visit an Eastern Church. As I’ve been preparing for Holy Week, I initially felt inspired to write a Holy Week-centric post. I intended to use the video below in that post, but the music and the psalm kept digging themselves deeper into my psyche, and….well, I just felt better equipped to write a blog post about Psalm 103. And maybe, it will inspire someone reading it to come experience some part of Holy Week in one of the Eastern traditions.

The above video is of the beginning of Entombment Vespers on the evening of Great and Holy Friday. It’s from St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church where the psalm is chanted in Ukrainian. I know the text of the psalm that they’re praying as we sing it at my parish in English. I love the idea of beginning Entombment Vespers with this psalm. As we celebrate Christ’s glorious passion, we begin with our eyes fixed on the greatness of God. We will later pray through the sufferings He endured for our sake. But we begin by looking at His Majesty.

I found myself reading through this psalm and thinking about it in the context of Great and Holy Friday. “Bless the Lord, o my soul,” the psalmist begins. “Oh Lord my God, how great you are!”

That is the God we hail as great. Beaten. Battered. Bruised. Crowned with thorns. Crucified between two thieves.

Oh Lord my God, how great You are!

You stretch out the heavens like a tent. Above the rains you build your dwelling. You make the clouds your chariot, you walk on the wings of the wind; you make your angels spirits and your ministers a flaming fire. You founded the earth on its base, to stand firm from age to age.

The One who stretched out the heavens, who founded the earth on its base, who hung the earth upon the waters…he is slapped on the face by those whom He created. He is spat upon. He is mocked. He is hung upon a tree. He bears all patiently. He gives His back to those who beat him and His cheeks to those who pluck His beard. (Isaiah 50) For our sake, He bore it all.

Oh Lord my God, how great You are!

That is the beauty of Great and Holy Friday to me. We in the East do not ignore Christ’s brutal sufferings, but we look at them in the light of their broader context. Christ suffered and died for us because of His love for us. He became the sacrificial victim so that He might also be the Victor over sin and death. Christ’s Passion and Death are not only acts of love but also acts of victory. Christ took crucifixion, a brutal way of death, and turned it into an act of glorious victory. He trampled Death and despoiled Hades.

Oh Lord my God, how great You are!

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Thoughts as Lent Ends…

Today, when the sun sets, my Church Tradition will consider Lent to have ended. Tomorrow, we will celebrate Lazarus Saturday and move into Great and Holy Week. Although we will continue to fast next week, the Great Fast that we began forty days ago will be at a close.

At the beginning of the Great Fast, forty days always feels like a long time to me. I’ve talked previous about how I disliked Lent as a child because I viewed it as some sort of horrible deprivation. I didn’t fully understand it. Now, I still don’t fully understand it, but I find more value in it. I have come to realize more and more each year how God can use those forty days (however long or short they may be) to help me to grow closer to him.

This Lent, I have primarily felt the Lord inviting me to trust Him more fully. In that invitation, I have been working through some anger and frustration that I have carried inside of myself for a long time. Last week, I was driving home from work and raging at the Lord. I was about to go staff a youth group retreat, and I was badly hurting from a hard week. I was struggling with some serious questions, and I just could not understand what I saw around me. As I raged, I felt the Lord answer me with the same answer He gave Job. “Hush, child. You couldn’t possibly understand.”

Hush. You were not there when I spoke the world into being. You were not there when I laid the foundations of the world. You don’t yet see the full picture. Yes, you’ve seen hard things this week, but you don’t know yet how all of these things will play out. Hush. You can’t possibly understand yet.

Now, I understand how that “hush” could sound harsh, but I felt an enormous amount of love in that. Hush, and trust me. You may not understand on this side of Paradise, but all will be well. Trust me. Trust my plans.

I went on the retreat. I was tired and still struggling with the baggage of the past week. But I heard the Lord through the talks and sharings. I experienced His love through people around me. Now, I was given no immediate answers to the questions, but I chose to focus on trusting those questions over to the Master of the Universe. I chose (and am still choosing because it is a daily process) to let go of those questions and trust them over to the Lord who knows the plans He has for me.

On Monday, I went to confession, and I told the priest that I was struggling with anger at God. He looked at me and asked me if I’d told God that. I said, in my usual delightful way, “Well, yeah, of course!” Now, God and I need to work through my anger. As I said in the above paragraph, I need to let go not only of those questions but also of my anger. Like Job, I need to say “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 2, 5-6) I need to surrender my pride and trust in God’s plan that is both better than mine and beyond my comprehension.

It isn’t an easy process. It won’t be done by the time Lent ends. It won’t be done by Pascha (Easter) morning. It is the process of a life. But it is worth doing. Will it be hard? Yes. Will it require sacrifice? Yes. Will it require grace? Yes. Will it be worth it?

I sometimes expect Lent to be more dramatic than it is. I’m not sure what I expected of it forty days ago, but this wasn’t it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just an interesting thing. If I want heaven, if I want holiness, then it follows that I must be willing to make sacrifices. I must be wiling to change. I must be willing to surrender my pride and trust in the plans of Him who is enough for us.

For in His Will is our peace.

-Dante Aligheri

We Need Lent

In my spare time, I enjoy listening to the videos on the St. Elias Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s YouTube Channel. I find the music to beautiful and prayerful in a way that enriches my life. In particular, I enjoy listening to the videos from Holy Week and Pascha. I’ve been finding myself getting really excited as I realize that this coming Sunday is Cheesefare Sunday. Now, as a Lent-hating child, I hated Cheesefare Sunday. It (like the liturgical season it precedes) ruined all my fun.

As an adult with a better appreciation of Lent, I adore Cheesefare Sunday. My favorite thing about Cheesefare Sunday is Forgiveness Vespers. During Forgiveness Vespers, we as a parish forgive one another. “Forgive me, a sinner, and I forgive you,” we say to one another. It is, to me, utterly beautiful. During this Ritual of Forgiveness, we sing the Odes of the Resurrection, music that we will hear again during Resurrection Matins (my absolute favorite service of the year) on Pascha Sunday and throughout the Paschal season. Now, I love love LOVE these odes. I’m so excited to get to sing these beautiful odes, these beautiful truths on Sunday.

But not only do I love Pascha, I love Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I cannot explain to you how much I love Good Friday’s Reading of the Twelve Gospels and Entombment Vespers. They are so beautiful to me. I canNOT wait to sing “Having suffered the Passion for us, Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on us” throughout Lent. And then, we’ll get to sing of the Noble Joseph (of Arimathea) who took down the Spotless Body of the Master from the Cross and laid Him in a new tomb on Good Friday. Love. I love singing of the Noble Joseph because I love the Noble Joseph.

I love this celebration. It is utterly beautiful. Over the course of several days, we journey with Christ from Bethany where He raises His friend, Lazarus, from the dead to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem through Holy Week to Holy Thursday and the Institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood to the Agony in the Garden into Friday and the Carrying of the Cross and His Passion and Death and then comes Pascha-His Glorious Resurrection on the Third Day. Christ is victorious through it all. He is the Victor. I love it.

You, O King and Lord, have fallen asleep in the flesh as a mortal man but on the third day you arose. You have raised Adam from his corruption and made death powerless. You are the Pasch of incorruption. You are the salvation of the world.

I recently confessed my love of Holy Week to my roommate. I told her that I wanted it to be Holy Week now because I want that beauty. I want that glory in my life. But her response was perfect. She told me that I couldn’t have them yet because Holy Week wouldn’t be the same without Lent. If I don’t go through forty days of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, the majesty of Holy Week is NOT the same. Lent leads us to Holy Week. We need to work our way through Lent to the glory and majesty of the Sacred and Holy Pasch. We need to prepare our hearts and minds to rightly celebrate the Great Feast.

From the Monastery of Christ the Bridegroom

From the Monastery of Christ the Bridegroom

I love Holy Week. I love Pascha. But I need to spend some time preparing for those celebrations. I need to take time (forty days sounds good) to focus my mind on the message of Holy Week and Pascha so that I can properly celebrate the feasts. I need my heart and mind to be focused on the love and mercy of Christ’s Victorious Passion. Prayer can do that. Fasting can do that. Almsgiving can do that. I need to focus my heart and my mind. I need to work on my relationship with God. And then, I can celebrate the Feast well.

And if you’re wondering, I do need to do this every year. Every year, I can grow more. Every year, I can find areas for improvement in my relationship with God and in my understanding of His love and mercy. I will never be perfect on this side of paradise. But the beauty of God is that He is always there for me to draw closer to and to know more fully. We all need this. We all need the opportunity to meet God in the wilderness and to prepare ourselves for the Resurrection.

Why “The Prince of Egypt” is an Easter Movie

From Christian Film Database

I love the movie,The Prince of Egypt. It came out when I was about ten, and I fell in love with the move. It was a story that I knew well, the story of Moses, the Passover, and God delivering his chosen people from slavery in Egypt. It was a story of God’s love for humanity and his desperate desire to draw his people to himself. But something about that movie resonated first with my ten-year-old self and then on into adulthood in a dramatic way.

Several years ago, I tried to convince a friend of mine that it is an Easter movie, and he disagreed with me. I don’t really remember his premise, but thinking it over, I think that I’m right.

On the surface, it is the story of God using Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land of Canaan. Well, okay, the movie only takes them just past the Red Sea, but the ultimate goal for them was the Promised Land. And it is clear from the movie that they will get there. It is the story of the first Passover. (Exodus 1-14)

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, and from there Christians move through Holy Week towards Holy/Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and ultimately Easter Sunday, Pascha. In those days, we celebrate Christ’s Passover. Just as God led his chosen people, the Israelites, out of physical slavery and into a physical Promised Land in the Exodus, so too in his Passion, Christ led his people out of a slavery to sin and death and into a the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ death and Resurrection took place at the time of the Jewish Passover, and that is no coincidence. He wanted to make it clear who and what he was. As the Paschal Canon of St. John Damascene says, “It is the day of Resurrection, * O People, let us be enlightened by it. * The Passover is the Lord’s Passover, * since Christ our God, has brought us from death to life * and from earth to heaven. * We therefore sing the hymn of victory.”

Christ is the Passover that comes once and for all. The lambs who were sacrificed and the first-born sons who died were for the liberation of those particular slaves, for that particular group of people’s freedom. They were but a foreshadowing of what was to come. They prefigured the Firstborn Son who would come into the world and become the Lamb of God, the Lamb who was “slain, and purchased for God with [his] blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9)

That is the story prefigured by The Prince of Egypt. The story that began in the Garden of Eden, continued with Noah, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with Jacob’s sons continues with Moses and the enslaved Israelites. It is the story of a God who tells Moses that “I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry…for I know their sorrow.” (Exodus 3:7). That is the same God who will send his only Son into the world because he continues to see the affliction of his people and heard their cries. And in the appointed time, he sends Jesus to live as a man, to suffer and die, and to rise from the dead to save his people from their slavery to sin and death.

To me, that means that The Prince of Egypt is absolutely an Easter movie. It tells a story of God’s relentless desire for his people, his tireless love for a people who continually turn their backs on him. He is a God who hears his people crying out for him. He loves them, and while his plans may not always make sense to us humans, he will never fail us.

And that is also the story of Easter, the story of a God who so loved the world that he sent his only Son into the world to give life and freedom to all people.

Why I “Go Vegan” for Lent

For the second year in a row, I’m choosing to become vegan for the Lenten season, which began today in my church tradition. After making this decision for myself last year, I posted something about it on Facebook because I know that I have several friends who are vegan and I was looking for some ideas for recipes and cookbooks. I received some really helpful advice both about recipes/cookbooks but also about nutrition and what are really good non-meat sources of protein. Overall, it was a really useful exchange for me.

Aunt Voula is here to help. Photo courtesy of Quickmeme.com.

But I was also asked at least once why I choose to do that. And one of those commenters (probably unintentionally) mocked my choice. The choice that I’m making is to follow as much as I can the rules of strict fast for Eastern Christians. (They’re not followed as widely in 21st century America as perhaps they ought to be, which is why Auntie Voula doesn’t know how to cook without meat.) This means that I’m avoiding meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy-ha, I do that anyway, and wine. I’m supposed to avoid oil too, but um, that’s crucial to my cooking. This is a sacrifice that I’m choosing to make, and it’s not for everyone.

The reason why I make this choice is simple. Lent is about sacrifice. It is about drawing closer to the Lord. The basic idea of Lent comes from the forty days Christ spent praying in the desert after his Baptism and before beginning his public ministry. If you remember this story (Mt. 4:1-11 and Lk. 4:1-13), this season in the desert ends with direct temptation by Satan. Similarly, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (as well as some Protestant Churches) celebrate Lent as a season of prayer, fasting, and penance to help prepare ourselves to better celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

Christ the Bridegroom

For me, one way to do this is to find ways to simplify my life. What can I remove from my life to help me to focus more on God? Meat might seem like an odd answer, but it does help me to make my life more simple and to think of myself less. For the record, this Lent, my plan is eat pretty much just lentil soup, vegan split pea soup, and a kale-quinoa dish that I love on a two or three week rotation. This offers me the opportunity make sacrifices, to simplify my life, and to (theoretically) focus more on Christ and less on myself.

In exchange, I’m hoping to pray more and focus my attentions more on other than on myself.

Lent for Singles?

Lent is drawing nigh. For Eastern Christians following the Gregorian calendar it begins in 13 days. For Western Christians, it begins in 15 days. For Eastern Christians following the Julian calendar, it begins in 20 days. Simply put, it is coming.

Picture from the Catholic Community at the University of Nottingham

As I’ve discussed in several previous posts over the years, I struggle with Lent. I often struggle with what sacrifices I ought to make for this season. What should be my focus/theme for this season? How can I grow?

I have a Lenten-themed Pinterest board where I collect various ideas that I might find useful for Lent. It’s a small board, and most of the pins are vegan recipes because I “went vegan” for Lent last year, and I plan to do it again. Yesterday, I decided to search Pinterest to see if I could find any ideas for devotionals or prayers or anything of that ilk that I could add to my board. Most of what I found however was “Lenten Activities FOR YOUR FAMILY.” I found posts for teens and posts for families with young children. Sadly, I didn’t find much in the way of “Lenten Activities for Anyone and Everyone.”

At first, I was a little frustrated by this. Now, I know that most of these ideas/posts come from “Mom Blogs.” They were written by good women (or men) who are trying to raise their families in a good and holy fashion, and they’re trying to share what their ideas for the celebration/honoring of Lent with other similarly minded families. And that’s great. I’m glad that these people have one another.

But this leads me to any area with which I struggle. I’m currently single; I’m as single as the day is long, which is fine. That’s where God wants me, and I believe that there is a value to this season of my life. (Plus, neither Tom Hiddleston nor Rick Porcello has shown any interest whatsoever in marrying me, so that makes it easier.) However, being single does not mean that I live a life without structure or traditions. It doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to build a life of faith. I do want to create and establish traditions. I want to be connected to the life of the larger Church. (I discussed this a little bit on my post about Advent-here.)

My struggle is this. How do I, as a single woman, build traditions? What should I be doing? I can draw ideas from blog posts or articles aimed at families or at teens, but what suggestions out there are specifically geared to me? I don’t want to be an island or a lone reed; I want to be connected to my Church, to her traditions. So how do I as an unmarried twenty something do that?

I can fast from meat and dairy products. I can go to Confession more. I can give up swearing, which I desperately need to do. I can avoid secular music and listen to only classical or liturgical music, which I’ll definitely do. I can go to the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts at my church as often as possible. (The service is celebrated every Friday during Lent, but I’m booked with an equally important obligation for a few of those Fridays.) These are all good things to do. They are important things to do.

Here is my quandary. How do I celebrate Lent and increase my connection to the rest of the Church? Most of the activities I listed as potential Lenten sacrifices are individual acts. What can I do that will increase my connection to the rest of the Church? This is a question that I would love to have my readers respond to, but it’s also a question to which I have something of an answer.

The best answer that I’ve come up with is that I can pray. I hate being told that as a single woman I have more time for prayer than my married friends, but this might be true. Yes, I have a job. Yes, I’m in grad school. But maybe in my hsubandless, childless life, I do have more time for prayer. And if so, I can use that time for prayer. And maybe at this stage in my life, that is what I’m supposed to do. Maybe I’m supposed to use these quiet (seemingly endless) years to pray for my church, for our world, for my family and friends, and for myself.

This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like more recommendations as to how to engage Lent more fully as a single person. This doesn’t mean that I don’t wish that there were more people offering advice to young single women like myself who are trying to maintain Church traditions and actively engage the Church in their singleness. But maybe I need to write the blog posts that I want to read. Maybe the reason that I can’t find the blog posts or pins that I want is because they don’t exist. And maybe, just maybe, there are other single women who would like to read those posts just as much as I would.

But one thing that I can tell you for certain is this: This year, during Lent, in addition to giving up swearing and keeping strict fast and going to Confession more, I will also be taking some focused time each day to pray for others. And if you have any specific intentions that for which you’d like me to pray, feel free to drop them in the comment box. I’d love to pray for you during this upcoming Lent, and I’d love it if you’d consider praying for me.

(Also, I’m going to be re-reading The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections during Lent.)

One Thing Needed

Last year, I wrote my “End of Lent” reflection on the topic of why I am Catholic. I focused on how the events of Holy Week have inspired, confirmed, and upheld my faith in Christ.

This year, I’m focusing it on a “trouble area” I’ve noticed in all of my Lenten blogging. I keep talking about what I can DO. What I can do.

And sitting here on Palm Sunday, I have come to a realization that this isn’t about me. It never was. It isn’t about what actions I can take. It isn’t about getting up earlier or reading a better book or going to church more. Ultimately, while all of that is good, that is not the point here. Ultimately, the point lies in me taking up my cross and denying myself.

Ultimately, all of my Lenten devotions-and really all of my life-should be about me surrendering myself into the hands of the Master. As I was out for a walk this evening and reflecting on my Lenten experiences for 2013, a clue by four came to me. I was thinking about all of the things that I didn’t do and all of the changes that I didn’t make. And then, I was reminded of something. Only one thing is needed.

““Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10: 41-42)

Only one thing is needed. Put your life in God’s hands and stop trying to run your own life. Give God everything. That’s all that I need to do. Everything else will come from that-the prayer, the change in attitude. It will all come if I put my life, myself into God’s hands every day, and live my life for him.

Now, that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s not an easy thing to live. I’m going to need loads and loads of grace to do it. And I’m going to need humility to do it.

But that’s all that I need to do. All I need to do is swallow my pride, look at the Cross, and say, “I need you.” God will do the rest.