Apr 03 | “The Rose Within,” (Sermon, Passiontide 2022)

Scriptural citation:

John 12:1-8

“Slowly blooms the rose within / Slowly blooms the rose within.”

A long time ago, we had a curate here at the Cathedral whose name was Chris Dierkes, a former Jesuit. He had connections in the Christian Contemplative movement, and in 2011, he invited the wonderful Cynthia Bourgeault to join us in Holy Week.

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest and writer currently living in New Mexico. She was a student of Father Thomas Keating, a Catholic monk who re-developed the Christian practice of Centering Prayer. Cynthia went on to found The Contemplative Society on Salt Spring Island in the 1990s, where she taught Christians how to reconnect with ancient Christian practices of prayer: the nurturing of silence and the re-learning of Wisdom literature from non-canonical Scriptural texts such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Being fascinated by her work, I attended her Holy Week service. It was held on the Monday in the evening. Four people sat on this platform behind me: Cynthia, a musician whose name I have sadly forgotten, Chris, and Chela Davison, a female friend of Chris’s. The musician began to play a harmonium, which filled the air of the church with a sad, reedy moan. After we listened for some time, we realized she was playing the Easter hymn, “Now the green blade rises.” And I broke out into gooseflesh as, totally unprompted, the entire congregation began to hum along.

The contemplative ritual that followed focused on the Gospel story we just heard. Cynthia explained to us that the woman who anoints Jesus, named here as Mary of Bethany but unnamed in other Gospels, was a forgotten Holy Week figure, the only one who really understands what’s about to happen to Jesus, unlike his disciples. In this ritual, based on one Cynthia witnessed in a French monastery, we’d reflect on how the anointing of Jesus by a woman bookends Holy Week – here, and later with the three who come to anoint his body after death. By washing his disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday, Jesus follows her example. We would also reflect on the beautiful synchronicity of the anointing with the Song of Songs from the Hebrew Bible.

The musician began to play again, singing this song:

“Slowly blooms the rose within / Slowly blooms the rose within.”

Chris and Chela then read parts of the Song of Songs as a dialogue, which is how it is supposed to be read. The energy of the room shifted dramatically. Chris and Chela sat in their chairs perfectly still without touching or even looking at one another, with calm and quiet voices, but the experience of that reading was still powerfully erotic. I have NEVER felt that way in church!

I actually reached out to Chris to ask about the details of this service, which were blurry in my mind, and he linked me to a written reflection Chela had done after the experience of reading. She writes,

“All that was required of me was to open in love. …[I]n order to open as love, I needed to open to every other arising experience. …So anxiety arose and I opened. Fear arose and I opened. Cynicism arose and I opened. I could feel layer upon layer, shells and callouses giving way and falling from my heart. …It was the first time that I have felt so fully, so deeply that there was nothing to do but love and for no other reason than for love itself.”

After reading the Gospel passage, Chela anointed Chris’s feet. The congregation was then given the chance to anoint one another’s hands with fragrant oil, which was passed across the rows of chairs. All of us were transported into the Gospel story as the whole church filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Why am I telling this Holy Week story before Holy Week? Well, partly because today we observe the beginning of Passiontide, which begins this Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Passiontide is one of our lesser-known traditions, and includes things like veiling crucifixes until Good Friday. The venerable Wikipedia tells us that this is a reference to John 8:46-59, in which Jesus “hid himself” from the people.

We are preparing, of course, to move into the most sacred time of year for Christians. Not to yuck anyone’s yum, but Christmas ain’t got nothing on this. As radical as it is to imagine the Creator of the stars of night entering a poor brown baby living in occupied territory, imagine proclaiming that that very Creator is lynched by the state only to overturn that old order in a conflagration of resurrection – not just before breakfast but even before the kids are awake to hunt for their eggs.

We’re on the threshold of something brand new. God is preparing us for great wonders in this shining moment where Truth is veiled for a short time. Mighty waters, symbols of chaos and changeability, will part to show us the way toward new life, a way built on solid ground. Chariot and horse, symbols of empire and oppression, will be extinguished, quenched like a wick. Freedom will be poured out abundantly like water – freedom from bondage, freedom from sin, freedom from Empire, freedom even from the fear of death.

But not yet. These are just whispers in a room full of fragrance, as we veil our crosses in remembrance and humility, recognizing that the things God will accomplish through Jesus are too incredible for us to fully understand, and so we fall into wordless sign-acts of anointing and veiling, a visible marker of the way we forego saying “Alleluia” during the season of Lent, while the rose of expectation blooms in our hearts:

“Slowly blooms the rose within / Slowly blooms the rose within.”

Holy Week is special because it is filled with these wordless sign-acts that point to truths which can’t be revealed through words alone. 

Today, we veil. But next Sunday, this place will be decked out in red as though festooned with fire. There will be palms and joyful singing, and yet what a strange joy, because we are heralding Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, the place of his execution. 

Why should we be joyful? Because we know what awaits at the end. We know the story. We trust the story.

And then we continue with smaller revelations. 

We’ll have our own, less elaborate contemplative service of song and anointing on Monday evening: Anointed, hosted by Lauren and me.

Holden Evening Prayer with the Rev. Matthew Senf will be held on Tuesday. 

The incredible music and light-filled service of Tenebrae, one of my favourite Holy Week services, will be held on Wednesday. 

And finally the Triduum, the Three Great Days, filled with drama, as we remember hour by hour the story of Jesus’s last days, and re-enact them, because we need to remember how it feels, in our bodies as well as in our minds, because Anglicans are a holistic people who like to re-member things physically as well as intellectually.

Like children, we are playing a game together, but this game is no frivolous undertaking. Playing is an important part of development. We all hold multiple identities within us, and your soul is a precious child that needs play to integrate and learn deeper wisdom. And this year, we get to be together again, in our own space, what our dear children and family minister Lauren calls “the prayground.” 

If you’ve never acted in the drama of this week before, you’ve got to try it. If you’ve done it before, but not with us, you’ve got to try it. If you’ve done it before with us, many times, you’ve got to try it.

Come on, try it with me. I’ve done it here before but never with you.

Even if you may get bored hearing the same story over and over, your soul is a child, and children never get tired of hearing the same stories.

It happened once, generations ago, but it’s also only just beginning.

“Slowly blooms the rose within / Slowly blooms the rose within.”

Sermon begins at 20:00

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