Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Past, present, and future

The fourth yearly fast, the Nativity or Christmas Lent, unknown to the world, is upon us. Like the other forty day fast, Great and Holy Lent, which precedes the other great feast, Pascha, this fast can be a challenge, but in different ways. In the November-December Lent, there is a greater focus on almsgiving, a lesser on dietary fasting.

The Salvation Army and other ‘charities’ make almsgiving as easy and safe as ever can be. Those bell-ringing ‘santas’ at the entrances and exits of large stores help our consciences to command us part with a dollar or two into those little red buckets, off-setting our sometimes exaggerated holiday largesse to our own friends and families.

Our diet during this fast is less strenuous—fish with scales, not just seafood and shellfish, is ‘permitted’ most days, Wednesdays and Fridays excepted. And there are unavoidable social functions—Thanksgiving, and the world’s fore-Yule office parties—at which we must break our fast to avoid either being pharisaical or offending our hosts.

As for increasing our prayers, well, this year we have been afforded ample opportunity for intercession right from the start, with the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and other places, not to mention the ongoing assaults on everyday humanity happening all over the world, even in our own neighborhoods. The Church tries to keep up with extra services, too.

The Nativity Lent is also a time when the Church tries to help our meditations and good intentions by supplying us with opportunities for spiritual renewal in various retreats. I’ve attended one or two retreats in my adult Christian life—yes, that’s all!—not because I oppose such formal constructs for Christian growth, but because I’ve found something better.

Better in the sense that you don’t have to leave your home, you aren’t subject to anyone’s schedule or rate of progress than your own, and the rewards are not ‘catch as catch can’ as often happens in group events but, as it were, guaranteed. What? Guaranteed rewards? Yes, and by ‘rewards’ I mean, whatever it is you think you are going into benefit from in a retreat.

And what is this ‘something better’? If you think I am coming at you with anything new and exciting, you may as well turn the page. New, no, exciting, yes, but only if are one of those who find the word of God fathomless and inexhaustible. My ‘something better’ is, reading and praying the Psalms, consistently, every day, especially in the morning, but really, at any time.

The thirty day cycle works best for me. The biblical book of Psalms is divided into thirty groups in exactly the order you find them. Psalms ‘appointed for Day 1’ will be Psalms 1 through 8. Psalms for Day 2 are Psalms 9 through 14, and so on. To read, and especially to pray, the Psalms every day in this fashion is actually more than a retreat; it can change your life, permanently.

Everything that is written in every other book of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is found either directly or alluded to in the Psalms, making the Psalms a sort of thumbnail of the whole Book, not a thumbnail that’s just a tiny picture hinting at the whole, but more like an icon that opens in all its immeasurable vastness the truth of God and man when you ‘click it.’

Today is Day 18, so the Psalms to be read and prayed are Psalms 90 through 94. From having this practice on and off in my forty years of adult Christian life, I already know at least what two of the Psalms will be about, and when I open the Book and begin, the Psalms I read begin praying in me, almost by themselves, bringing to mind past, present, and future things.

That’s a whole lot to meditate on, to intercede and to offer thanksgiving for, and even to act upon. Without relying on anyone’s intellect and experience but your own, the Psalms bring to your attention the will of God for you, personally, helping you to focus on what He wants you to do and to be, not on what others tell you, you should do and be. How can this be true?

Well, there is a Holy Spirit, you know. He is not an ‘it’ or just a name that gets intoned in doxologies at the end of formal prayers. He’s a real person, yet not one that we normally ‘talk to’ when we pray but, astonishingly, He is the one who talks to God the Father ‘in us’ and on our behalf, even ‘as us.’ He’s so closely invested in us that we don’t realize He’s there most of the time.

This is nothing that we don’t already know from the teaching of Christ and the apostles, the teaching that Holy Church has received from them, which is why we are baptised and chrismated, not for ceremony’s sake, but to make us a race of kings and priests, anointed even as King David was, who composed many of the Psalms. Indeed, only kings and priests can approach God.

Lest I am misunderstood, remember, ‘kings and priests’ means ‘male and female’ just as holy and divine scripture tells us, ‘God created man in the image of Himself, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them’ (Genesis 1:27). The Bible is unfolding our full humanity by stages, just as the Psalms will unfold your full humanity to you when you offer them.

This is the ‘retreat’ I am going on this Christmas Lent, at least as much as I can, and as there is nothing to stop me but my own laziness or preoccupation with the cares of this world, I hope to make my pilgrimage to the Nativity of Christ along this simple road—

‘Let us wake in the morning filled with Your love and sing and be happy all our days… May the sweetness of the Lord be on us! Make all we do succeed’ (Psalm 90:14, 17) Let us bless the Lord! Thanks be to God! Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Psalms for Day 18: 90, 91, 92, 93, 94

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