Monday, February 4, 2008

Entering into Lent

As one enters the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem one's gaze is first drawn upward to the central dome and then to a stone slab on the floor and this mosaic (to the right) on the wall. It is the dramatic reminder of the central events of the crucifixion, and then the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Islam has its focus upon the holy book, the Qur'an, conveyed to the Prophet Mohammad from God, while Christianity has its central focus upon a person.
Many, many, many years ago when I was doing my undergraduate work at Pomona College in Claremont, California, this book was part of the reading list for a religion course. "What Contemporary Theologians are Thinking." Some 'smart' collegian had changed the punctuation so that it read: "What! Contemporary Theologians are Thinking?"

We are beginning the spring term at the seminary and I am teaching a reading class on Middle Easter Christianity after the Rise of Islam. One of the book I am having the students read is a part of the new series called: "A People's History of Christianity"which focuses beyond the saints, bishops, and theologians of traditional history. There are plenty of these figures for us to study, (the religious controvesies, the polemics against one's enemies, etc.), but I believe that it is important to consider "what the common people were thinking about religion".

What is it that we "common people" think about in this season of Lent, and how does it relate to our Christian faith and life? The first three chapters of the People's History series on "Byzantine Christianity" suggest some themes.

The first is entitled: "Lay Piety in the Sermons of John Chrysostom" and focuses on the ways that the Christian message calls us all to consider how our lives are to be lived in response to God's will, and what amendment and transformation is called for. Not a bad Lenten exercise, whether it comes from the stirring of one's conscience or the preaching of God's Word. The second is entitled: "The Cult of the Martyrs and the Cappadocian Fathers" and discusses the ways in which the Church sought to regularize and shape the local piety of the faithful. People turned to the local shrines and the popular saints hoping to obtain all sorts of benefits from a gracious God, anything from the repair of hernia to the successful conclusion to a business venture. To believe that in God's love, one will receive "good things" was central and acted out in those pilgrimages and visits to "holy" places. (How is it with us?) The third chapter, entitled: "Romanos and the Night Vigil in the Sixth Century, begins with this marvellous quote by Arundhati Roy:
"The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably....They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't." (p. 59)
These third themes:
A time to examine our lives in relations to God's Word
A moment to anticipate the "goodness" of God in our lives - and
An opportunity again to hear and to become part of the "Greatest
can, I pray, help us on our Lenten journey. Peace, Roger

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