Friday, February 26, 2016

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 109) X Files edition

I had lots of plans crammed into the long Presidents’ Day weekend a while back. But snow and ice storms, amongst other things, canceled my plans, leaving me with three days of Netflix binging. I got sucked into X Files. I have a friend who tried to get me into a year ago, and I had been going slowly, an episode here or there. But I really synced with it that weekend and have since blown through several seasons. There are forthcoming blog posts relating my current sci-fi obsession to my faith, so brace yourselves for my latest geekout. 

1. I’m 20 years late to the party, but I’m totally on board the Mulder/Scully ship. Totally. They might simultaneously be my favorite platonic and romantic couple. Never has side-eye and hand-on-shoulder been so sexy. 

2. Scully needs to wear her latex gloves and surgical masks more often. Papers left behind by a killer? Gloves. Gooey body of unidentified humanoid? Bare-handed and uncovered mouth open. This is how all those alien diseases spread! 

3. I’m really glad the government had stopped smallpox vaccinations before I was born. And I can see where anti-vaccers are coming from. In fact, my binges are making me pretty paranoid about several things. I need to get some good detox literature lined up.

4. Family members of FBI agents must have terrible insurance rates. Same for any woman that crosses Skinner’s path.

5. I kind of don’t want to see the new episodes, because I can just go on the internet and see what post-9/11 Mulders are like in real life. That’s depressing. I need the distance. 

6. The show premiered in September 1993. That month is beginning of Eternal September, which refers to when AOL began offering Internet access for many people. Before then, the internet was mainly geeks and college students (with waves of newbies joining each September at the beginning of school, settling into the ways of the net within a few weeks). In Sept. 1993, the waves of new AOL users didn’t stop, forever changing the culture. I think this show is the perfect Eternal September show, in that it perfectly encapsulates 1990s tech. As agents, Mulder and Scully have cellphones and the internet, and both play incredibly large roles in plots. As the seasons progress, more and more common people have the technology too. The show seems to perfectly balance how technology was used in the 90s.

7. This scene. Just, everything about it. #blackandwhite #cher #walkinginmemphis #mutant #jerryspringer #mulderandscullydance #postmodernprometheus

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Repent and Believe

I love Ash Wednesday, but it’s pretty predicable. Knowing me, I love it in part because it’s predicable. Every year, across Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian et al churches, there is the same reading from Matthew. There is the same imposition of the ashes of last year’s palms. There is the chanting mantra, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Only, I didn’t hear that this year. Instead, the priest said the other line that can be said while administering ashes: “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe it was because annually I mumble something about ashes and dust not being the same thing. Maybe it was his upbeat Colombian accent. But I really loved hearing something different. And it stuck with me all day.

Jesus proclaims the phrase after he returns from the desert. John the Baptist had been arrested. Jesus, after being baptized, retreated into the desert. He returns and says that the time John prophesied about has arrived. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.” [Mark 1:15] He goes on to gather disciples and work miracles.

The 40 days of Lent reflect the 40 days Christ spent in the desert, a time of penance and denial and fighting temptation. But what was Christ’s message after his time in the desert? Repent, and believe the gospel. So Lent should be leading us to that conclusion as well.

Often I think of following Jesus as a choice. We like the guy so we try to emulate him. He extends a warm invitation to be part of the tribe. But it’s not really like that. It’s not a warm invitation; it’s a command. He’s drawing a line in the sand, and we choose to radically change our lives or endure the consequences. Jesus welcomes all into his fold, no matter who they are, but they still must turn from sin. It’s not supposed to be easy. But it is worth it, in the end. That’s what makes “Repent, and believe the Gospel” such a great Ash Wednesday motto.

Monday, February 8, 2016


"Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrod, and Lucie."

The Old Testament reading for this past Sunday was about Isaiah’s call to prophecy. He experienced a vision where seraphim said the Sanctus around the Lord’s throne. Isaiah feels doomed, because he is a man, a sinner, unworthy to be a witness to the beatific vision. It is too clean, too pure, and too bright for him. As wonderful as it is, he knows he can’t be there. But then a seraphim takes an ember from the altar and presses it against Isaiah’s lips. This removes his sin and makes his lips pure to preach the message from God. 

Firstly, the story shows humans’ unworthiness to enter heaven. We are unclean, but we can be made clean again. And it is not necessarily a tidy process; it might burn. Fire is cleansing. We are not just washed clean, but purified all the way through.

Secondly, it is fitting that Isaiah’s story is this week, as the first week of Lent includes an embertide. Embertide, or ember days, are days of particular prayer and fasting and occur four times a year. It is a Western church tradition that developed between the fourth and sixth centuries. It became an official Church tradition under Pope Gregory VII, who declared them Quatuor Tempora, the Four Times. Ember days occur the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday of Lent, Whitsunday (Pentecost), Feast of the Holy Cross, and the first Sunday of Advent. Those days of the week traditionally are fasting days because they were the day of Jesus’ betrayal, death, and decent into hell.

After 1969, Catholics were no longer obligated to fast on ember days. The same for Anglicans after 1976. I think that’s rather sad; the Eastern church fasts much more often and with stricter rules than the West. Ember days were a fasting tradition that the West had all to itself, and yet it has been pushed aside. I think an extra 12 days a year (beyond our current two) would do the Church well. I seriously doubt that a seraphim is going to descend with an ember from the altar to purge my lips. But I can participate in the grace I’m given. By fasting and praying, I can ready my soul for purification.

Despite its sometimes stately power, Christianity is a religion of the poor. It promotes the worth and dignity of each person and shuns the entrapments of earthly power, wealth, and significance. Pope Francis said, “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial. We would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.” People commonly give up something for Lent. But what is the point of giving up something, or of fasting, or of self-denial? How does my poverty actually enrich others?

First, it breaks us out of our daily habit. Giving up chocolate or coffee seems trivial, until you experience cravings and find yourself reaching out for that comfort throughout the day. You realize how dependent you have become and how privileged you are. You see the poor around you, the ones who have less and suffer more. It opens your eyes to what needs to be done. Second, you have more resources to share with the needy. Be it money saved from not purchasing that drink, or time saved from not playing that video game, you now have something extra to offer—money to a food bank or volunteer time to a homeless shelter. Fasting is not just about avoiding certain foods but about living a more simple, focused life.

Third, each time you remind yourself, “don’t do that” you also remind yourself why. You turn a mindless habit into a reflection of faith. I’m fasting today, why? Because Christ was tempted in the desert. Because Christ was turned out from his hometown. Because Christ was betrayed. Because Christ suffered torture. Because Christ died. In just a bit of discomfort, I am turning to Christ, trying to meagerly share in his suffering.

It seems counterintuitive to engage in an uncomfortable activity. Isn’t the world uncomfortable enough? Yet to me, it is like a training exercise; a small amount of suffering prepares me for when real suffering occurs. I learn that I can make it through, that faith doesn’t wane when comfort does. In something as simple as Lent or fasting, I remember that life is not about comfort. It is a trial, an ordeal, a preparation. It is temporary discomfort itself, for the sake of a better afterward. Spiritual enrichment emerges from pain. It is not about being burnt, but being forged into something pure and strong. Isaiah had an ember pressed into his lips so that his lips might be worthy of the Truth. Might a few days of fasting forge me in a similar way.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

In the Bleak Midwinter

Despite the Christmas song, February is actually the bleak midwinter. Around February 1 is the midway point between winter solstice and spring equinox. People feel very much in the dark, but there is a hint of light ahead. Spring is coming, but not now. As such, several holidays mark this midway point. 

The Celtic calendar had Imbolc. There is some disagreement on the meaning of the word imbolc, but some say that it is Old Irish for “cleansing.” People would begin preparations for spring and make divinations about the future. It was all about looking forward. Divinations about the future continue with Groundhog’s Day in America on February 2. People watch to see how the sun hits a rodent to determine how much longer winter will last. In Germanic cultures, it’s a bear seeing its shadow. In Celtic cultures, a hag collecting firewood. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it’s another six weeks of winter (but it’s another six weeks of winter on the calendar either way). Still, looking forward to far off spring. 

Also on February 2 is Candlemas. Candlemas is 40 days after Christmas and commemorates Jesus’ presentation at the Temple. It is also called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Jewish custom, women waited 40 days after the birth of a son then went to the Temple to present the child (Lev. 12:2-8). The parents would offer a sacrifice, a lamb or turtle dove. The mother would also undergo mikvah, a ceremonial washing (the precursor to baptism). During the presentation, Simeon gives his prophecy, calling Jesus the light and revelation to the Gentiles. 

In the Church, people came to have beeswax candles blessed on this date (hence the name Candlemas) and pray for light. St. Anselm noted the candles’ significance: Candles are made of wax, wick, and flame. The wax is a product of the bee (a symbol of virginity) and represent’ s Christ’s flesh, which came into the world through the Blessed Virgin. The wick, held within, is his soul, and the flame, which flutters atop, is his divinity. 

Although the days are lengthening, it is still a time of darkness. We cling to little candle light or sunlight we have and slowly thaw out, prepare for warmer days. Winter is colliding into spring. Our bodies are still in mid-winter, but our minds and hearts are looking forward. And this is where is find the beginning of Lent. Lent is starting early this year, tagging on at the end of these mid-winter holidays. It’s six more weeks of winter, of penance and fasting. But at the end is Easter. The spring of our salvation is coming, just not now.