The Friday Fast: Do not rush to Easter

Do not rush to Easter

You may stumble over someone slowly
carrying their cross, might miss the quiet words
of sacrifice: my body for you, my blood.
Do not sleepwalk past the garden, where olive groves
groan and dream of peace. Do not rush, for you
may miss Pilate’s grand oration, “Ode to Truth,” or
hasten by the soldiers playing dice for spoils;
pray for their souls and the bodies left
bereft by their attentions. Take pause:
the tears of women carrying spices
have turned the ground to fragrant mud.
Do not hurry to the tomb. There is no need
for haste, when time itself will stutter
soon, and the world begin to turn anew.


This poem first appeared in the newsletter for the Church of the Epiphany, and at the Episcopal Cafe.

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Here is love

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, in which Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet.


Only three times do we meet Mary of Bethany in the gospels, at least by name. The first time we meet her, and this last time, Jesus tells those around her, criticizing her, carping on her, to leave her alone. Let her be. 

In both instances, Mary was attending closely to Jesus. In the first place, she simply sat at his feet and listened to him, and her sister, Martha, complained to Jesus that there were other things Martha needed Mary, or wanted Mary to do. But Mary was lavishing her time and attention on Jesus, and Jesus defended her choice. He let Mary stay close by him.

Martha was in charge of the household, no doubt. When their brother died, and Jesus came late to visit them, it was Martha who met him and upbraided him for not coming sooner. It was Martha who was consulted about rolling away the stone in front of her brother’s tomb. It was Martha who told Jesus, “Yes, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” Martha who declared her hope in the resurrection.

That in-between visit is the only time we also hear Mary speak, and when she does, it is an echo, a repetition of her sister’s opening words, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” as though Martha had taught her what to say. But instead of answering her, gently arguing it out with her, as he did with Martha, when Jesus saw Mary weeping, he just broke down and wept with her.

There is a simplicity to Mary, and to Jesus’ relationship with her. I think that Mary may have been quite fortunate to have a sister like Martha to look after her, out in the world. Such innocence can be exploited. Such devotion is dangerous. Even here, among family and friends, there is a vulnerability to Mary, in the way that others see her, and want to correct her or redirect her. They are embarrassed by her demonstrative love, her extravagant and single-minded attention to Jesus. But Jesus is deeply affected by her, and strongly protective of her: “Leave her alone,” he says. Let her be.

I learned this week that the word that John uses to describe the way in which Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair is the same word with which Jesus wipes his disciples’ feet, including Judas’ feet, before that dinner in the upper room that we will soon celebrate and commemorate. I wonder if Jesus was inspired by Mary’s devotions, whether her embodiment of loving humility helped him form the plan to kneel before his friends and wash their feet.

Martha – faithful, faith-filled, distracted and well-meaning Martha – Martha is still serving, but perhaps she has undergone a change of heart since that first encounter. Perhaps she has taken to heart Jesus’ admonishment: Let her be. At any rate, this time, she is not the one who tries to undermine Mary’s position at Jesus’ feet.

This time it is Judas – cynical, self-righteous, possibly fraudulent Judas – who objects not to Mary’s position but to the disposition of the perfume that she has just squandered on Jesus. Just as Martha was not wrong to want help in the kitchen, Judas is not incorrect in his assessment of the other good that a pound of pure nard could do. But his motives are less pure than the perfume, and his dismissal of Mary, his diminishment of her act of love and mercy, his contempt for her betrays him. And Jesus is having none of that: “Leave her alone!” he says.

We cannot all be Mary, at least not all of the time. Many days we are Martha, distracted by many things that have to get done, or else the world will stop turning, or so we seem to think. There is a pain somewhere behind her ribs that reminds her of her mother. Something in the tenderness of Mary’s hair on Jesus’ feet that reminds her of grief. Perhaps that’s why she looks away, busies herself back in the kitchen, as though that will heal her. 

Sometimes, we are Judas, world-weary and cynical, jealous and resentful of the attention that someone else is getting, that someone else has to give. Judas doesn’t care if Jesus’ teaching and wisdom is wasted on Mary. He does care that she is wasting good perfume on the man that Judas will never be. His self-righteous words barely cover up his self-doubt, self-loathing. He heaps contempt upon himself and it spills all over Mary and even Jesus. Beware of contempt; it is a fairground mirror, and it will distort us as much as the other, and lead us down false pathways and dead ends.

I am willing to wager that a lot of the time we are Lazarus, dazed and confused, grateful to be alive, don’t get me wrong, but not up for much else, just wanting to eat our dinner in peace. Lazarus, who doesn’t get involved in the argument either time and is in no fit state in between; Lazarus, who, perhaps, could use some bystander training? 

But now look at them, Jesus and Mary, one more time. Even Martha pauses from spooning out the rice. There is such love in this moment that the scent of it fills the air. It drives out the stench of fear that hangs around their journey to Jerusalem. Here is love that doesn’t bury grief, but anoints it, attends to it. Here is love that doesn’t count the cost, but pours itself out so that it is felt, sensed, perceived far beyond the feet that receive it: “the house was filled with the fragrance of it.” Here is love that inspires others to love. Jesus soon will wash and wipe even Judas’ feet with the same action that Mary has used on him, with her hair, with her soul.

And here is love. Jesus told Judas, and those who were in danger of agreeing with him, “Leave her alone.” He accepted Mary’s offering, he welcomed her devotion, her sins, whatever they may have been, were forgiven. If her gesture was clumsy, or inept, or embarrassing, he was unconcerned. He loved her for who she was, and for how she was, and for how she loved.

Holy Week is coming. Jerusalem is but a couple of miles away. The love which welcomes us for who we are, how we are, how we love, that forgives us with a humility that we can only aspire to, that love is about to be poured out in all kinds of uncomfortable ways. Its fragrance will fill the world, not with the stench of death but with the power of love to bring new life.

And what will be our character in the story?

Image: From Christus gezalfd door Maria MagdalenaDe kleine Passie (serietitel), Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons. This illustration is from Luke’s telling of the story (Luke 7:36-50), in which the woman is unnamed; the artist has attributed the action to Mary Magdalene.

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The Friday Fast: Sabbath

Sabbath

Don’t kill time.
Sit with it a little;
wait for it to see you watching, 
slow its stride.
Let it tell its story;
it has been too long
since you had time
to listen.

“Once,” says time,
“I was at the beginning
of every tale; words
were built upon my spine.
When did time become
so busy that the stories
have no time to settle
into my bones?

“I am old as creation
and new every day.
God herself has hallowed me out,
but even I cannot hold
the evening and the morning
without pause to catch my breath,
and pray. Stay
a while,” says time.

Consider: you could walk 
away with the weight 
of a broken-hearted grandfather
clock on your hands,
or stay a while listening 
to time pass, 
counting the moments not as though wasted,
but lightly, like steps in a dance.

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The Friday Feast: Annunciation

We interrupt the Friday Fast series for the Feast of the Annunciation, the story itself of a glorious interruption …

Annunciation

What strange boldness to announce the Word
to his astonished Mother; Auden had it right,
the falling star blitzing its way into consciousness.

The angel, patient as only the immortal may be,
orates, words about the Word, imperturbably,
as though language, the cacophony of consonants
and vowels, clanging syllables could contain
the sheer affrontery of God’s obliterating mercy.

W.H. Auden, The Temptation of Joseph, from For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
Image: The Annunciation, Stefano di Giovanni, via Wikimedia Commons, CC0

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Holy ground

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022

The people of God were groaning under their burdens: cruel slavery, attempted genocide – you remember where Moses’ story began, amid the murder of infants and the interference of Pharaoh among their birthing mothers – and the people cried out (Exodus 1-2). According to the book of Exodus, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (Exodus 2:24-25)

The people groan under the burden of war. Their mothers were murdered. The cries of the infants who survived mingle with the tears of great-grandmothers, each as helpless as the next. We have seen it starkly and unambiguously in Ukraine. We have seen it elsewhere; we may have been tempted to turn away.

But God took notice. God saw the people, God heard the people, God remembered the people, God paid attention to the suffering of the people. God came down, God stepped out of heaven, God descended, condescended to speak to Moses about the people.

In fact, Moses nearly blundered right into the angel of the Lord, the vision of the presence of God, standing among the unconsumed branches of fire. He didn’t notice the angel, it seems, only the flames and the curiosity of the shrub that refused to burn, until God spoke directly to him. Like Balaam, whose donkey had to tell him about the angel in the middle of the road – you remember that story? 

The king of Moab wanted Balaam to prophesy and to curse the people of Israel as they were encamped nearby, but Balaam would not. Yet eventually he did agree to go to meet the king, although only to deliver what God would say to him. On the way to Moab, God met Balaam three times on the road, but Balaam did not notice. How could he promise to deliver the word of God if he would not even see God standing right in front of him! His donkey saw, and turned aside, and when there was nowhere left to turn, the donkey lay down beneath Balaam, and refused to move. And because Balaam would not see God, and could hardly promise to deliver the word of God if he couldn’t even see God standing right in front of him; because of this, God opened the donkey’s mouth and the donkey told Balaam, “Really? Do you not see what is happening here?” (Numbers 22)

Do you not see? Moses could not see God’s messenger standing right before him. 

Moses had given up on his people, on the house of Pharaoh, on all of them. He had left his home in Egypt and settled on the other side of the Red Sea, among the Midianites. He was married. He had a family. He thought that he had put the suffering of his people behind him, that he was turned loose from all of that. So why, in God’s name, did he find himself now, with his father-in-law’s flocks to feed, turning back towards the desert that lies between the land of Midian and the nation of Egypt? Why was he back in the wilderness when God found him? Was he so lost?

God found him, and God said, “Moses! Here I am.” 

God said, “This is holy ground.” In the middle of the wilderness, to the side of the path, from the heart of a desert shrub, God spoke, and God said, “This, too, is holy ground.” Because there is no place on earth that God has abandoned.

God said, “I have heard them. I have seen my people, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them.”

Because there is no one whom God has abandoned to injustice, or to violence.

We may have lost our way. We fumble for a path to peace like a drunkard staggering home in the dark. We cry out like cats on a rooftop. We wonder who hears us. We fall silent. We lower our eyes to the ground. We do not see the angel of God watching us, waiting for us to look up, to notice the fire that does not consume, that does not burn, that does not fall from heaven, but kindles among us, right here on earth, because God has come down.

God has come down to deliver us.

The way of deliverance may not look exactly as we expect. The messengers of God may not speak in words that we are ready for – who would have thought that the donkey would talk? But how will we see God if we are not prepared to find Them.

 Moses was not certain that God knew what God was doing, sending him back, but God knew. The journey to the Promised Land was not without danger or sacrifice. The way of the Cross, of Christ crucified was and is a stumbling block to many and foolishness to many more. The seeds of peace that we sow and tend may take time to bear fruit, the vine may even seem to be barren for a season, but be patient. For God has come down to deliver us.

We read the stories of the Bible and we ask God: why not come down directly to Egypt instead of waiting for Moses to notice the burning bush? We see the stories on the news and we wonder if we dare ask today: why not come down directly to Kyiv, or to Tigray, or to Yemen, or to Kabul, to the trauma unit, or to the maternity hospital in Mariupol?

God says, of course, I have, and I am, and I will. I have come down to deliver my people. I was born in treacherous circumstances. I survived the genocide of Herod to be crucified by Pilate. I was with the construction workers at Siloam. As a child, I was a refugee in Egypt. I am with the suffering at war. I was killed by a cruel and unjust empire. I am with the thief in paradise. I have seen my people, I have heard their cries, I know their suffering, I have come down.

This is holy ground. There is nowhere that I have abandoned, and no one whom I would not go searing through the wilderness to find.

And you, Moses, and you, and you will be my messenger, to tell Pharaoh of my justice and the people of my mercy.

“Seek God, while God wills to be found” (after Isaiah 55:6). For God is come down to us.

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The Friday Fast: But not consumed

Spare a prayer for the shrub

living on cloudbursts and sand;

the will of iron would not withstand

the attentions of this living fire

that melts the ground to glass

and on it stands mirrored

in its own image kindling

rooted in dust aflame

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The Friday Fast: spring snow

Like snow that falls

after the daffodils have shown their colours,

Friday afternoon slips in

at the end of a long, slow week to whisper,

“One more fast yet

before the Sabbath.”

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“God shall give the angels charge over thee”

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 2022

Gravity is a morally neutral force. The devil was not asking Jesus to do anything brave or courageous or righteous when he tempted him to throw himself down from the tower, but on the contrary, to throw off his humanity for the sake of his own vainglory. If Jesus had done it, he would only have proven that he was not one of us after all; or else he would have fallen. But Jesus is with us, and for us.

The Archangel Michael, prince of all angels, is usually depicted in iconography soundly defeating the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil, and Satan”, in the book of Revelation (Revelation 12:7). Then was heard a voice from heaven proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down … Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe,” the voice continues, “woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:10-12)

The Book of Common Prayer, since its earliest editions, petitions St Michael and All Angels that those who worship in heaven might also help and defend us here on earth. The Archangel is implicated in the Roman Catholic rites of exorcism.

Michael is also the patron saint of Ukraine. An Eastern Orthodox Akathist, or hymn to the Archangel, concludes with a prayer that asks, in part,

“O holy and great Archangel of God Michael, first among the angels that stand before the inscrutable and transcen­dent Trinity, overseer and guardian of the human race, who with thine armies didst crush the head of the most-proud Morning Star in Heaven and dost ever put to shame his evil and cunning on earth, to thee do we flee with faith and to thee we pray with love; be thou an invincible shield and a firm bulwark of the Holy Church and our homeland, pro­tecting them with thy lightning-bearing sword from all ene­mies, both visible and invisible. Be thou a guardian angel …”

When the devil decided to tempt Jesus in the desert, his use of scripture was cynical. The pinnacle of his efforts was straight out of the psalms: “If you trust God so much,” the devil said; “If you really think that God is with you, that God keeps promises, that God loves you, then throw yourself off the temple and let God send guardian angels to catch you.” 

Much later, in the Garden, when Jesus asked his accusers, “Why have you come to me with clubs and swords. Don’t you know that I could call down a legion of angels to defend me from you if I wanted to?” (Matthew 26:52-56), I wonder if he was responding again to Satan whispering around the stressed edges of his mind, returned at an opportune time to test him. And still, in the moment of crisis, Jesus was far beyond that serpent’s reach.

I do not think it any accident that, after showing him all of the kingdoms of the earth in the second temptation, it was no Roman tower or pinnacle to which the devil took him to tempt him next. The idea that Jesus would willingly cast himself down from the temple, away from the presence of God, and expect angels to follow was both misguided and misleading. It would be nonsensical for the Word of God, to depart from the will of God, which was not that Jesus should avoid or cheat death and its snares, but soundly defeat it.

He did this not by employing his angels to shield him from the world, but by participating so fully in it that he took all of its injustice and its violence and its blasphemy upon his shoulders and carried them through the streets of Jerusalem, though he might stumble beneath their weight, to the site of crucifixion.

Even knowing that resurrection was at hand, he did not avoid our sorrow or suffering, but he shared fully and bodily in it.

So where does that leave us and our prayers of petition, or for protection? What is the difference between trusting God and testing God?[i]

If we expect God’s angels and archangels to fly us away, to help us flee from our responsibilities to repentance and restitution and reconciliation and relationship; if we turn away from the Cross and expect Jesus to follow us, then we are not trusting God, but testing God’s patience.

None of this undoes the good news that Jesus also told us, that if one lamb should go astray, our good shepherd will go after it, but at what cost, what risk to the life of the flock as a whole?

In the fuller version of the psalm that the devil quotes, there is a plague stalking the country. Tens of thousands are dying, maybe hundreds of thousands, let the reader hear. The psalmist prays that he is protected, like one who stands on the field of battle while all around him are falling, as though the angels have formed a shield around him, impermeable and impenetrable.

We are entering the third year of a plague that has killed nearly a million people in this country alone, and brought low many more. We are grateful for this present lull in the battle. Covid has no conscience; it is a morally neutral force. But defeating it has required and will continue to require a moral response of us, one based in love, self-sacrifice, wisdom, and care for the other, rather than bravado, selfishness, greed, or vainglory.

It makes me wonder, what if we are supposed to be the angels to one another, to catch those who are falling through the cracks; to catch them and cradle them? 

The letter to the Hebrews quotes another psalm, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet” (Hebrews 2:6-8). For God did not provide this world to the angels, but to us (Hebrews 2:5).

What if we are called upon to lift one another over the obstacles that would crush our toes and cause someone to stumble? What if we are responsible for helping to carry the cross of Christ, to lift the burden of suffering from the Son of Man, to strive to remove the violence of war and the scourge of terror from among his children, to bear their burdens; to bring relief to those in need, without complaining of the cost? What if we are called to the way of truly sacrificial love, as the means to resurrection?

What if when we do these things, taking up spiritual arms against the onslaught of sin, the temptations of selfishness, fasting and praying and strengthening our spirits and training up our hearts to look to God in faith, and in trust; what if it is when we do these things that St Michael and her angels surround us and support us and sustain us, as the angels attended to Jesus in the wilderness after he resisted the wiles of the devil, according to Matthew (Matthew 4:11)?

Leave not without thy help and protection, O Archangel of God, also us who glorify thy holy name today; for behold, even though we be great sinners, nevertheless we desire not to perish in our iniquities, but rather to turn to the Lord and be quickened by Him unto good works. … Strengthen through the Grace of the Lord our weak will and feeble state, that, made firm in the law of the Lord, we may hence­forth cease to be tossed to and fro by earthly thoughts …, foolishly forgetting the eternal and heavenly for the sake of the corruptible and earthly. Above all these things, do thou ask for us from on high a true spirit of repentance, unfeigned sor­row before God and contrition for our sins, that we may spend the number of days that remain to us of this transito­ry life not in gratifying our senses and in slavery to our passions, but in wiping out the evil things we have done by tears of faith and heartfelt contrition, by struggles of purity and holy deeds of mercy. And when the hour of our end … draweth nigh, O Archangel of God, leave us not defenseless against the spirits of evil in the upper air, who are accustomed to hinder the ascent of man’s soul on high, that guarded by thee we may attain without hindrance those most glorious dwelling-places of Paradise, where there is neither sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting, and be vouchsafed to behold the most radiant countenance of our all-beneficent Lord and Master, fall down with tears at His feet, in joy and compunction shouting aloud: Glory to Thee, our most dear Redeemer, Who, because of Thy great love for us unworthy ones, hast been pleased to send Thine angels in the service of our salvation! Amen.[ii]


[i] See The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume IV, 1048

[ii] Akathist to Archangel Michael, https://www.akathists.com/archangel-michael/akathist/

Image: Archangel Michael (Aleppo) Q104195342, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Friday Fast: God remembers that we are dust

An occasional series for Lent 2022

God remembers that we are dust

On street corners, cats scavenge for scraps
deep within the angles of the shadows;
dust and debris fallen from the high-carried
baskets of bread and meat; the fruit
they could take or leave; the herbs,
relics of another time and place
where the sun shone and the city
opened its gates to devour its light,
intoxicate them.

A little lower than angels, we
carry the baskets high, but we
are not the acme of this trickle-down economy;
shedding our dust and ashes,
knees and ankles buckled by 
our own cobblestones, the ways
of our own making; we grow
like weeds among the dirt, shallow-rooted,
subject to drought,

Yet God remembers us.
God remembers that we are but dust
and the ashes of last year’s plans;
God remembers how once we blossomed
with hope and love; even so
God sweeps together the dust and ashes,
anoints them with a little oil from the marketplace,
daubs the walls while the world sleeps:
Remember, and return.


This poem is also found at the Episcopal Cafe

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Ash Wednesday: ice to ashes

Last Saturday, I spent far too much time and energy chipping away at the layer of ice that was left behind after I shovelled the snow. I did it because the sun was out and I knew that if I could just break up the ice enough, the sun would do the rest, but that if I left that half-inch layer intact, the chances were that it would not look much different by the time the sun went down.

The power of the sun is an immense natural wonder. I tried looking up the numbers, but they are mind-boggling. Suffice to say that on a cold winter’s day, the sun is sufficient to melt the ice off my southeast-facing driveway – but even then, it could sometimes use some help.

In the old religions some worshipped the sun. We know better, that our Creator and Sustainer is more powerful, more personal, more remarkable and mysterious than the greatest created forces that we can encounter. Still, as I chipped away at that ice, with one eye toward Lent, I wondered whether my work on the driveway could be work as a metaphor for the season.

There is no doubt that God has more power to reach me than I have to reach God. And yet there is something to be said for clearing my heart of ice, for attempting to break up the layers of hardness and chill that have a tendency to accumulate, given the casual coldness of the world and the cynical response of my soul. There is something satisfying in partnering with the power of the Spirit to provoke repentant reflection, and the renewal of a spirit of resurrection. 

This does not have to do with making myself holier. There isn’t much I can do about that: God is the one who sanctifies. It certainly isn’t about making myself look or feel or seem holier; Jesus has plenty to say about the outwardly pious, as do the prophets (Matthew 6:1-6,16-20). It does have to do with paying attention to where I am setting up barriers that prevent me from seeing God, experiencing God’s love, reflecting God’s grace.

Someone, somewhere, has said that sin is whatever separates us from the knowledge and love of God. That could probably use some further examination (and Lent is a time for self-examination and reflection, leading to repentance), but in essence it rings true. Like the ice that goes before a fall, sin builds on itself and creates further harm. Selfishness engenders pride, and pride begets greed, and greed spawns envy, and envy was the first sin of Cain (Genesis 4:1-8). 

The more embroiled in sin we become the harder it seems to be to turn ourselves back toward God, to face the music. The sun on the ice can appear blinding instead of warming.

The prophet Joel evokes the threat of war and the terror of a people who feel helpless in the face of disaster, natural and unnaturally made (Joel 2:1-2). We see the dust and ashes and the weeping far too clearly in these days. Our sin is ever before us.

Yet the words of the ashes, taken from the words of the psalm (Psalm 103:14), are not a threat but a promise: God remembers that we are but dust. God knows our frailty and our fright, and our fragile faith.

It seems almost that God is not concerned for our shame, which is another form of self-pity. Jesus tells us to wash our faces and not to wallow but to simply to get on with the business of repentance: the chipping away of the ice that surrounds our hearts; to turn away from oppression, from the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil (Isaiah 9-10); to do good instead of harm; to do justice, and love mercy, to put it another way (Micah 6:8).

The work of Lent can be daunting. Self-denial is not an easy habit to establish, and our fasting may be fraught. What is healthful and helpful for us to give up, and what will further harm our relationships with God, our bodies, our spirits? Self-examination can be difficult, and repentance tinged with regret. But reading and meditating on God’s holy Word will remind us that God, unlike the sirens of this world, is slow to anger and full of compassion and kindness (Psalm 103:8). God remembers that we are but dust, and we can enter into that remembrance with God, warmed from ice to ashes, we will remember that God waits for us as a grandmother waits for a beloved child to come home, waiting to wash our faces and settle us down.

Then, the work of Lent is worth it, to melt open that doorway to the Spirit, the comfort of the Advocate, the joy of the Son, and the love of the Father, our mothering God.

Amen.

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