“Is this the day, mama?” asked Mary recently.
“The day for what, sweetheart?”
“The day I wear my Costco dress.”
I thought back on all I’d purchased over the last several months from that fantastical warehouse stocked with electronics, books, tube socks, oversized portions of food, toiletries, cleaning supplies and coffee – big, big bags of oily Kenyan coffee beans rich in color and aroma and…wait, what was I talking about? Oh yes, the Costco dress. As far as I could remember, I’d never bought one. But she insisted. My three-year-old was adamant and getting closer every second to imploding out of frustration.
“Mary, baby, let’s go to your closet,” I tried to reason with my preschooler, calmly. I would show to her, prove to her that no such dress existed but when we got there she squealed and pointed wildly to a clear plastic Lands End bag on the top wire shelf. “There it is mom! I told you! My Costco dress! Can I put it on yet?”
And then I laughed; I laughed and picked her up, embraced her. “Oh I get it! Your Pascha dress!” I’d ordered them a little less than a month ago – matching butterfly patterned dresses for my daughters. She’d tried it on and then I hid it, knowing how desperate she’d be to live in it, sleep in it, eat in it, play in it. Out of sight, out of mind, I figured. How silly of me.
“It’s almost time, Mary. It’s almost here. I promise”.
I need to admit something, publicly, over the internet, because I’m strange, kind of neurotic like that: My Lenten journey got pretty harried there near the end. Oh boy, did I hit a rough patch, feeding my restlessness, the natural restlessness accompanying quiet and introspection, with busyness – just like always, just like I always panic a little when the heat gets too intense and the realities of something deeper than mere surface level living.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been running like mad, feeling even more flustered than usual by every petty inconvenience, every news report of senseless violence, every reminder that I was dangerously close to following the letter but hardly the spirit of the law. I was going through the motions, fasting without praying and that, my friends, is a toxic combination I can assure you.
I was grateful last Wednesday for Troy’s offer to watch the kids so I could attend a Pre-sanctified Liturgy all by lonesome. By that point, I’d had had more than enough of the skirting and dodging of all things spiritually strenuous, things which called into question my priorities – ascetic disciplines I knew, now, were my only means for rising above the crap and horror of a culture enslaved to greed, voyeurism and the perverse and reckless impulses of its self-obsessed inhabitants.
Yes, it’s hard and scary to surrender not half-way, but completely to the unknowable will of Christ. The alternative, however, - avoidance, procrastination, even a fixated disbelief in a Great and Final judgment, in an all powerful Creator, generating a passionate revulsion for those ridiculous enough, impudent enough, to not cave in when branded as “ignorant”, even “evil” for their stubborn pursuit of salvation, is to wade in the mire of envy, anxiety, lust, despair – is to stay thirsty, to stay famished, to forget that authentic peace, mercy and love are even possible.
I stood in the choir that night next to the only other alto in attendance – our powerhouse alto, always present, always spot on. She’s a petite woman, blond and jovial, patient with my kids, welcoming to newcomers. After any given coffee hour, when everyone else has headed home for an afternoon nap, you’ll find her scrubbing away at the dirtied dishes and wiping down the counter tops in our parish’s kitchen.
Beside her were the sopranos, our priest’s wife and her teenaged daughter linked arm-in-arm. Behind us, I heard my dad singing tenor and Elijah’s godfather singing bass. I saw my daughter’s Sunday school teacher, her husband and grown son near my mother who was following along in a service book. We were a motley crew, ragged from child rearing, nursing the sick, working nights, creating expense reports. “Man, I adore these people,” I thought out of nowhere.
The hymnography that evening was just as timely, alive and remarkably insightful as ever:
I am rich in passions,
and clothed in the deceitful robe of hypocrisy.
I rejoice in the sins of self-indulgence.
There is no limit to my lack of love.
I neglect my spiritual understanding
That lies at the gate of repentance.
Make me, Lord, like Lazarus, poor in sin,
that I may not be tormented in the unquenchable fire,
praying in vain for a finger to be dipped in water
to relieve my burning tongue.
But make me dwell in the bosom of Abraham,
as the lover of mankind.
Nothing is quite so effective at renewing one’s determination to press on through the fluff, the static laziness, the inclination to keep Christ at a safe and non-threatening distance, like hearing your secret sins described in detail and acknowledged as universal by the Church. “There is nothing new under the sun,” wrote Solomon in Ecclesiastes. None of us is more behind, more in need of forgiveness. We are all equally in need of healing.
Our screw-ups should be taken very seriously, their painful consequences should bring us humbly to our knees, should keep us in our place but never, never ever should we allow them to trick us into believing that they are mightier and bigger than God’s grace.
I urge you – you, who like me, may have hit some bumps on this Lenten road, to dust yourself off and begin anew as we head into Holy Week. Let us keep in our hearts and in our minds the hope-filled words of St. John Chrysostom’s beautiful, extraordinary, Paschal Homily as we make our way together toward the cross and the empty tomb:
"Let all Pious men and all lovers of God rejoice in the splendor of this feast; let the wise servants blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord; let those who have borne the burden of Lent now receive their pay, and those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late, for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes on the eleventh hour as well as to him who has toiled since the first: yes, He has pity on the last and He serves the first; He rewards the one and is generous to the other; he repays the deed and praises the effort."
It’s almost time, my brothers and sisters! Pascha, the Resurrection, it’s almost here!