The most beautiful Christian service I have ever witnessed I encountered in Cambridge, Mass. Within the walls of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a small Episcopal monastery astride the banks of the Charles River, I was welcomed into the service of Tenebrae, a Service of Shadows.
Dark, lighted only by candles, it was an hour of plainsong chanted psalms and canticles and lessons from Lamentations, divided by moments of profound silence and reflection, that moved me to more fully understand Jesus’ teaching that, regardless of what people of faith call themselves, if one submits, if one focuses one’s attention on God, then “all these things shall be added unto you.”
What will be added, I believe, is a willingness to embrace the poorest, the weakest, the least liberated among us.
What will be added, I believe, is a willingness to understand that liberation is a path to Beauty and Truth.
Last Palm Sunday I spent part of the afternoon weaving palm fronds. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out the weaving pattern, but tearfully, as a familiar form revealed itself, it brought back memories, so many decades ago, of my father, after returning home after Palm Sunday Mass, teaching me how to weave palms. Holy Week then meant new clothes — soon to be infused with scents of incense from Mass in our Eastern Rite church — special cookies, ma’amul, filled with dates and nuts and tasting of rose water, huge meals and family visits — and watching adults weaving palm fronds, speaking Arabic, sharing memories of the “old country.”
Palm Sunday, I did it to honor him and to love you, to reflect the promise that persists in our lives.
Spring approaches. Some forsythia has already blossomed. Sharp, pointy green shoots reaching for light, appear through earth cracks and promise that soon crocuses and daffodils will emerge. Hopefully, near the granite steps that lead from the driveway a purple hyacinth, given to my daughter years ago by a friend at an Easter service in upstate New York, will again reappear.
It is a season of love, of scents, memories, promise, deliverance and liberation. Most importantly it is a season that reminds us that we can’t forget the lessons of Passover and Easter, of Moses and Jesus and Muhammad, of Gandhi, Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the “Others” of their day, who rose against authority and delivered their people into the light.
Out of the shadows, into the light.
There were no daffodils and crocuses in Egypt over 3,000 years ago, “in the month of (the) spring,” when the scribes recorded man’s first successful slave rebellion and told us how the Israelites, with God’s help, were freed from slavery; and how Moses led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea to Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments.
By overcoming pharaoh, by triumphing over the powerlessness and hopelessness that tyrants and rulers try to instill in their subjects, the story of the liberation of the Israelites forever inspires humankind with the promise of freedom from oppression.
The beauty of the Easter story, of Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter, radical, preacher, born of the Virgin Mary, and, according to Christian tradition, crucified, died, buried and raised from the dead, is no less inspiring. In challenging authority, in chasing the moneylenders from the temple, in embracing the disposed and giving them promise of salvation we learn, through his sacrifice, that redemption is of the spirit.
We live in an imperfect world where the battle for liberation and freedom is never easy. Achieving social justice for all is a challenge, but the examples of the prophets inspire us, and compel us to action.
We have learned that we cannot walk alone, that we cannot live as strangers amid each other. We honor the memories of our forebears and recognize the dignity of all. We have learned that while we speak many languages, many tongues, there is only one truth, and to embrace that truth often requires sacrifice.
This week I found the example of Pope Francis washing the feet of children at a Rome juvenile detention center inspiring, a powerful message to us all. By reaching out and serving the least of us, without regard to gender or religion or color, he humbly pointed us, so correctly, toward the straight path.
“All human nature vigorously resists Grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Flannery O’Connor
As the sun re-warms the earth, as we hold hands along the beach, as robins search for safe places to build a nest, and even as teenagers feel liberated when they get their first driver’s license, life constantly challenges us to seek a straight path to freedom and independence.
Move on that straight path toward that light.
Tenebrae ends, I remember, with lines from Psalm 51:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Renew the right spirit within us.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.