It is never too late to begin again.
New International Version Translation
Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise Him! The Lord builds up Jerusalem; He gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; His understanding has no limit. The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground.
Sing to the Lord with grateful praise; make music to our God on the harp. He covers the sky with clouds; He supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor His delight in the legs of the warrior; the Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love.
Extol the Lord, Jerusalem; praise your God, Zion.
He strengthens the bars of your gates and blesses your people within you. He grants peace to your borders and satisfies you with the finest of wheat. He sends His command to the earth; His word runs swiftly. He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes. He hurls down His hail like pebbles. Who can withstand His icy blast? He sends His word and melts them; He stirs up His breezes, and the waters flow. He has revealed His word to Jacob, His laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know His laws.
Praise the Lord!
Hooray! The Rat is dead, long live the Ox!
On February 12th Asian communities around the planet welcomed the Year of the Ox, succeeding the Year of the Ghastly Rodent. It is a sincerely welcome change, and celebrations are certainly in order — as indeed is the tradition, which extends for two whole weeks!
The Ox may not be predictive so much as inspirational: offering a framework for the conduct of life in the coming year. A strong, determined focus is the character of the Ox, who moves forward steadily, calmly, powerfully. After the year we have endured, that sounds like a very reasonable attitude (and pace) to adopt!
In the Christian tradition the heavenly (winged) ox symbolizes the Gospel of Luke, which begins with the story of the priest Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth. It is the story of the answer to an unspoken prayer.
Zechariah is taking his turn, serving at the High Altar of the temple in Jerusalem. Solid and reliable, he goes about his task: blending together the ingredients of the incense, arranging the cloth, setting out the sacred vessels, ensuring that all is correct and proper before lighting the incense and reciting the prayers. Around him, the fluttering of birds in the rafters, the echoes of his own footsteps, the whispers of the flames, the fragrant, swirling tendrils of smoke, and the immense, overshadowing stillness.
His priestly prayers, so far as we know, were the standard issue ones that were said during this rite. These were offered daily, and followed the pattern of thanksgiving and requests for the safety and well-being of the community.
So far, an average day, the usual routine. Nothing to see here, move along.
But then, out of the blue — well, out of the gray smoke — an angel appeared. Not surprisingly, Zachariah was terrified. Suddenly his average day wasn’t quite so average any more.
And the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” (Where have we heard that before?)
The heavenly messenger went on to tell Zachariah that his own very personal prayer — a yearning so tender, a desire so precious and so seemingly impossible to fulfill — would be granted. Perhaps the Gospel doesn’t mention this prayer because it wasn’t spoken out loud: perhaps the couple’s hope for a child was consigned to what-might-have-been; a long-ago dream now past dreaming; an ache too deep for words.
Then, utterly unexpectedly, “It shall be for you as you have asked,” Gabriel tells Zachariah. A new beginning will be born (literally) from the ashes of his hopelessness; a phoenix, a radiant songbird, arising from the depths of unspoken suffering.
When the astonished fellow does manage to speak, complications ensue — as they generally seem to do in the Holy Scriptures (and in “real life”). For his insistence on an explanation, Zachariah is punished with the loss of his voice; he will not be able to say another word until the divine gift is fully realized when Elizabeth gives birth to their son, who shall be named “John.”
Imagine how much Zachariah must have learned in those months of quietude, those weeks of learning to listen; discovering the subtle nuances, the inferences and innuendos, the sighs and silences in others’ words! And what of the thoughts peopling his own heart: the impulses and emotions that were usually hidden beneath rote phrases and reflexive responses?
It would appear that the angel’s command was not a punishment, but a gift: a “silent retreat,” that provided Zachariah with a peaceful respite, and understanding — of others, and of himself, as well.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
~ Matthew 6:1
February 17th is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent for 2021: six weeks that offer Christians a special opportunity. This is not an excuse for moaning and groaning to everyone we know that we’ve given up chocolate or cheese or anchovies — but a chance for serious personal, private consideration on the state of our souls.
This year, unlike any before in my experience, we are in need of a holy cleansing of our hearts and minds and souls and strength. Forget food — focus on your emotional, your spiritual, and your mental diet. What are you consuming? Or, perhaps more accurately, what is consuming you: your brain, your spirit, your imagination, your hopes? Are you crushed beneath ceaseless commotion; your hearing deafened, your thoughts confused by an unending tumult of noise and nonsense, a cacophony of sound and fury?
Stop and consider what you are feeding your soul.
What would six weeks of fasting from those “foods” be like?
With the current restrictions on religious gatherings, very few of us will be receiving the gray cross upon our foreheads this year. Instead, I want to suggest creating personal, individualized ashes for the Lenten Season 2021.
Choose an image, a word, a phrase to symbolize what you are thankful for from the past year and inscribe it on a small piece of paper; do the same for what you would eradicate from your life — as, for example, a troubling habit or temptation, a painful memory, a behavior or attitude that impedes your living of a full life. Then, in a fireproof container, in a safe place with a water supply nearby, put a match to them both. Crush the remains into a powder, and place it in the palm of your hand.
Both the pleasant and the unpleasant, the good and the bad, the fun and the frightful have been a part of your life; all these experiences have contributed to your current situation, your current understanding and outlook. Look upon them, and offer a prayer of thanksgiving for what has helped, and offer to God’s mercy what has hurt.
See that all that went before, the joys and the sorrows, all that troubles and torments you is now merely dust and ashes: harmless, powerless. It is past; finished, ended. It is up to you what you will carry forward, what you choose to make a part of your life in the days ahead. Remember, too, as you look into the palm of your hand, the One Who cares for us, Who cherishes us, Who holds us “in the palm of His hand.” with infinite mercy and boundless love.
What are human beings that You are mindful of us?
Amazing grace, astonishing love: that is the mark of our Creator.
Now touch your fingertip to the ashes and mark your forehead with a cross, as a blessing and a consecration to the Way of the Lord Christ, the Son of God. In His life we have life.
Let us approach this Season and the coming year in keeping with the character of our Brother Ox: with strength and determination, grounded in our faith, and firm in our resolve.
May the grace of the Lord Christ inspire, strengthen, and sustain us,
Consider a spiritual Lenten fast; a holy cleansing of your heart and mind and soul and strength.
Strive to avoid what is evil and seek that which is good.