For us to be made new
Holy Week is a very special time during the last week of Lent in which the specific events of the Passion are singled out and emphasized. Personally, and liturgically, we travel the spiritual road from sublime fulfillment, through pain and loss, to absolute victory and fulfillment.
The services of Holy Week coincide as closely as possible with the events of Jesus’ last days, and the great spiritual importance that the anticipation of that final washing of the Lenten ash imposed some forty days ago. These are among the most important saving events that God had brought to pass through his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
This week of worship begins with Palm Sunday: when Jesus entered Jerusalem amidst a huge demonstration of support by the common people. Many thought he was going to declare himself a Messiah in the tradition of the conquering Maccabees, who had once temporarily restored the glory of the Jewish nation until it was conquered by the Romans in 63 B.C. But, the triumphant entry was an ironic celebration as many of those who were hailed as King this day would demand his death just five days later.
Holy Week observances continue with Stations of the Cross on Wednesday night, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. In the past, we have held a vibrant Holy Saturday gathering for the children in our area. This year, we will observe a Holy quiet Saturday: a time to stop in the eye of the storm. Holy Week delivers us to Easter Sunday when we gather for a Festal Eucharist proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection and our salvation.
The services of Holy Week are the heart of our corporate observance. However, each day is an opportunity for us to individually reflect personally on the Passion of our Lord:
Each year we gather during this special week of observance to immerse ourselves in the truth of sacrifice and the example of supreme love. The church has provided this time for us to receive this love and to accept this sacrifice anew, with open hearts and wanting spirits.
Come. Come to God in the spirit. Use what the church has provided and accept Christ as He is. Together our love for each other, in the light of His love for us, can break the bonds that hold us and set us free to accept the saving grace of God.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Bible tells us in Genesis 1, that we were made in God’s image. This means that we have emotions because God has emotions. What a blessing to live in the likeness of God every day with every emotion we experience! While our emotions are a divine gift, not recognizing them as such and managing them can make them more of a curse than a blessing.
We cannot flee from our own feelings, and trying to ignore them seems to make matters worse. Our only option is to learn how to deal with them. The stewardship of our emotions is critical to a healthy spiritual life, and recognizing emotionality and spirituality are two very different things.
For those who live according to the flesh
set their minds on the things of the flesh (Romans 8:5a)
Emotions are feelings related to worldly life. We are happy or sad; angry or joyful; loving or distant. Emotions are produced by our interactions with the world, by living and experiencing life through our expectations. “I am excited about going to the party (happy) because it’s going to be fun.” “I am sad and a bit angry (dejected) because it wasn’t fun and a waste of time.” Emotions are a product of the complex process of desire and expectation interacting with reality.
The dangers of unchecked emotion are legion. If we base our decisions—especially our faith decisions, on emotion, we will be led not toward God, but away. Emotion-based faith is misleading because it uses feelings to interpret our circumstances and form our thoughts about God. This is putting feelings before faith. With emotion, the criterion for positive opinion is a product of “what makes me feel good,” not necessarily “what God wants for me.” An emotional perspective seeks satisfaction or confirmation of the self first and receives all things according to an emotional need.
Sadly, Christians often confuse ‘good feelings’ with spiritual awareness.
…but those who live according to the Spirit
set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Romans 8:5b)
Spirituality is about being godly in thinking and acting, focusing on unearthly or unworldly life, and divine realities. Spiritual awareness leads to equanimity and tranquility of the mind, emotional states which are the result of divine influence. To experience life through spiritual growth and reflection is to encounter the world without the expectation of ‘my happiness,’ but rather with the foreknowledge of God’s intention. A spiritual perspective seeks God first and receives all things in the companionship of the Holy Spirit.
As we are created in the image of God, Scripture calls us to be people who feel what we believe; people who not only know truth but experience it. Our emotional life is hallowed in our earthly experience when it is in line with the divine intention. Our feelings and emotions must be governed and guided by God. We should fear the Lord, hate evil, love the truth, mourn over sin and injustice, and rejoice in our sufferings. These are not idle commands, but precepts given by God in light of who God is and what Jesus has done. We are supposed to feel the weight and power of the truth revealed in Scripture and be informed and inspired in mind and soul.
The key is not to pursue feelings themselves, but to pursue the Lord Jesus Christ by looking to Him, knowing His ways, pondering His promises, and obeying His commands. God has created us as emotional people. As we hear in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to weep and laugh, to mourn and dance, to hate and love” (3:1–8), but it is faith that gives birth to godly feeling. As the English Reformer John Bradford noted, “Faith must first go before, and then feeling will follow.”
The pursuit of a deepening spiritual life includes both knowledge and action. As St. James tells us, "But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing" (1:25). It relies on the power of the Holy Spirit to live according to God's will. The Holy Spirit serves to lead us into all truth (John 16:13), gives joy (Ephesians 5:18), and convicts when we sin (Ephesians 4:30). As St. John teaches us, "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:5-8). True spirituality depends on the supernatural power God gives through the Holy Spirit rather than dependence on human expectation.
St. Paul tells us that when a believer lives by the power of God's Spirit, it produces godly qualities and brings honor to God. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23). Growing in the Spirit creates a life able to serve others and point the way to Christ. As Jesus taught, "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
From this perspective, Christian spirituality is for the honor of God, and personal maturity, and serves as a blessing to others, both through the good deeds that take place, as well as a heart attitude that points others to God.
Spiritually in Christ,
“Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us…” St. Hesychius, Watchfulness and Holiness
In recent years, the term “mindfulness” has found its way from meditation centers and academic classrooms to everyday conversation, but because of its supposed origins, new-age observances, or psych counseling, it is often rejected out of hand. Mindfulness is thus guilty by association and as a result, is mostly ignored—or worse, rejected through ignorance. Yet mindfulness can be seen as a modern term for the practice of watchfulness written and preached about in the 5th century by St. Hesychios the Priest.
In his writing, Watchfulness and Holiness, St. Hesychios commends to all Christians a discipline of prayerful focus on Jesus. He writes:
Continuity of attention produces inner stability; inner stability produces a natural intensification of watchfulness; and this intensification gradually and in due measure gives contemplative insight into spiritual warfare. This in its turn is succeeded by persistence in the Jesus Prayer and by the state that Jesus confers in which the intellect, free from all images, enjoys complete quietude (7).
Watchfulness is the practice of being self-aware and dedicating that awareness to God in order to be elevated from the mundane to the spiritual.
The term mindfulness can be defined as a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. It is the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment with openness and curiosity, with the intention of rising to a better state. To achieve this, mindfulness techniques include focused relaxation, meditation, conscious review, a very close mirror to silence, awareness, and prayer.
St. Hesychios writes:
Just as the richness that comes from moving closer to God is evident in the angels, so love and intense longing for God is evident in those who have become angelic and gaze upwards towards the divine. Moreover, because the taste of the divine and the ecstasy of desire make their longing ever more intense and insatiable as they ascend, they do not stop until they reach the Seraphim: nor do they rest from their watchfulness of intellect and the intense longing of their aspiration until they have become angels in Christ Jesus our Lord (201).
Mindfulness, or watchfulness, as a practice for people of faith, draws us closer to God by being aware of the self and offering all aspects of the self back to God.
Joy in Lent
Lent is a season of reflection and repentance—but also of a curious type of joy. In Lent, we reflect upon our sin and brokenness and the fleeting stability and reliability of life. We also practice repentance, which moves us past regret into action; an attempt to be obedient to God in the things which we find ourselves lapsing. This gives Lent a bad reputation: an accusation of being a killjoy season. But that would be a hasty deduction at a great expense to this season’s benefits. There is joy in Lent, but it is the kind of joy that comes in being made whole; the sort of peace that arrives in taking a drowning man and hauling him on the deck of a rescue ship. If Easter were to come to life and be a type of personified joy, we might envision it as a dancer. “There goes Easter, round and round in pure ecstasy, unstoppable and unable to let anything slow it down!”
Lent is a different kind of joy. It’s the joy that comes in serenity: the joy of being rescued and realizing there is another day ahead of you. It’s the joy of holding the hand of a loved one as he or she passes peacefully into the arms of Jesus. Lent is the joy of insight or understanding; the joy which accompanies self-reflection and awareness: wisdom’s precious advent. Lent isn’t bombastic; it’s a time when mysteries stabilize into greater faith; a season where the crooked lines ever so gradually connect into symmetry. In Lent, joy isn’t decorated in celebration but with confidence and expectant sobriety.
Lent is the time offered for us to experience and achieve self-reflection and repentance. We don’t realize this simply by the tearing of our garments, we rend our hearts so that God Himself can fill them up and make them anew in the Good News of Jesus Christ. The curious joy of Lent is that for those who live awaiting God’s consummation of all things, there is a Man who walks beside us in the here and now. This Man invites us to cry the tears we dam up behind pretexts and platitudes. The joy of Lent is not a dance; it’s the peace of rescue, the application of Good News, God’s presence in suffering.
In 331 A.D., Athanasius I of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), who was also called Athanasius the Great, Athanasius the Confessor, Athanasius the Apostolic, and who served as the 20th Bishop and Pope of Alexandria and is regarded as one of the Church Fathers, wrote to the church in Alexandria as was his regular custom—a 3rd-century newsletter, if you will. In his “Festal Letters,” he outlined the importance of a period of forty days of fasting prior to, but not inclusive of, the stricter fast of Holy Week. Exhorting to his flock, Athanasius wrote to motivate the people, “to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.” While there was some discussion of the best methods of Lenten observance, fasting was not in dispute as a powerful Lenten discipline.
Almost two millennia later, Steven R. Harmon, author of Ecumenism Means You, Too, Frederica Mathews-Green, author of The Jesus Prayer, and Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life, add to the conversation in a joint article in Christianity Today. Here, they promote fasting as a foundational and wholistic practice:
Lent is a time of year to remember that God has seen fit to make us not airy spirits but embodied human beings living in a beautiful, material world. The soul fills the body the way fire fills a lump of coal, and what the body learns, the soul absorbs as well. Spiritual disciplines such as fasting are analogous to weight-lifting equipment. One who uses them in a disciplined way will be stronger, not just when he’s lifting weights, but also for every situation he meets.
The early Church Fathers recognized about the soul what we have come to understand about our physical selves: that we must exercise or risk atrophy and decline. Modern advances in Alzheimer’s research have categorically shown the value of “mental exercise” in staving off or decreasing the advance of the disease; physical therapy is simply necessary after injury or surgery to rebuild the afflicted area; and in all areas of our lives, exercise is a creation-based component of how we grow and prosper. To complete the analogy, then, Lent is an ancient observance that has stood the test of time because it is a “training camp” for those who would recognize their need for spiritual health and growth.
In our time of multiple afflictions, both without and within, our focus on relief and healing is not only expected, but promised in scripture: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Mt. 11:28-30). Jesus calls us to himself, but when we come, we must bring ourselves. If you have not been observing Lent so far, fear not—it is not too late. Start today!
Fasting is a wonderful, easily accessible ancient church practice that focuses the soul outward even as the feeling of deprivation is felt inward. If you are confused about fasting, please call or contact me. There are also many online resources. What’s most important is taking the time and energy to be focused on God. Fasting is a way of doing that. Above all, be honest with yourself and God about the life you are living and the reasons you do—or do not do—what you do. God is already aware of that, but we each need the opportunity to cleanse our lives, accept God’s grace, and be strong for what is to come.
Faithfully in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†