A Note from the Pastor
One of the reasons why the hardships of the pandemic have been so heavy to bear is because our hopes for relief and a return to a pre-pandemic normal have been so high. (At least to the best of that normal. Some of it I’m just as glad to leave in the dust.) We miss terribly the way life used to be, it seems more and more likely we’ll never return there, and we don’t like the distance between where we are and where we hope to be. Maybe our expectations are too high, and we’ve forgotten the enduring message of Incarnation.
Writing in the March issue of The Atlantic, James Parker revisited a time nearly thirty years ago when his life was not going well. “As far as I was concerned,” he wrote, “I was going insane.” Suddenly grace pierced his gloom. Something from beyond spoke to him when his hand brushed the warmth left on a Formica tabletop by the mug of tea he was drinking. “And the message was this: One day, you’ll be able to simply appreciate what’s in front of you.” One day, he realized, that accidental encounter with a circle of fading warmth will be enough.
Continue to press toward your highest hope, Parker urged. Strive for excellence. “But lower the bar, and keep it low, when it comes to your personal attachment to the world. Gratification? Satisfaction? Having your needs met? Fool’s gold. If you can get a buzz of animal cheer from the rubbishy sandwich you’re eating, the daft movie you’re watching, the highly difficult person you’re talking to, you’re in business. And when trouble comes, you’ll be fitter for it.”
Per aspera ad astra, the ancients told us. Through hardships to the stars. It’s a moral claim that if greatness is acquired without suffering, hardship, or toil, then something valuable, even essential, is lost. It’s also a claim that it’s precisely from our hardships that we acquire greatness.
The message of Incarnation (remember Christmas?), is not that God came (or will come) to sweep away a blemished and failed creation and replace it with a new one that is pure and full of light and goodness, where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). The message of Incarnation is that God’s blessing, completed and perfected and needing nothing more, is found precisely in the difficult challenges of this ordinary and difficult life we live.
Our faith doesn’t look toward something we don’t have that God will provide in the future. It unblinds us and redirects our attention toward what we have already. “Life is so generous a giver,” Fra Giovanni wrote (“Letter to a Friend,” 1513). “But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.”
Lent is a season when, as we get in touch again with the ground of our being, our perception is cleansed so we can see the heaven that is spread all around us.
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