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The Still Point: A Time of Meditation and Reflection
The Second Sunday in Lent
… At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance…
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Peace on each one who comes in need;
Peace on each one who comes in joy.
Peace on each one who offers prayers;
Peace on each one who offers song.
Peace of the Maker, Peace of the Son,
Peace of the Spirit, the Triune One.
We praise you God, that the light of Christ shines in our darkness and is never overcome; show us the way we must go to eternal day; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Gospel Mark 8:31-38
Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Poem: The Shadow-Cross by Amit Majmudar
I just couldn’t breathe in its shadow.
It weighed what the cross weighed, that shadow
Cross, more than any shadow should.
No sun could shoulder that kind of shadow,
No man kneels there without a shudder.
The dark beams crushed me flat as shadow,
My flesh, grass, matted by the shade. No
Way a mere cedar cross could shed so
Much dark matter, so weighty a shadow.
I just couldn’t breathe in that shadow
Until I made myself a shadow-
Swallowing sea and swallowed shadow
The way a sea will swallow daylight.
The shadow splashed down, and the sun’s light
Spilled over—only I was the light’s
Sole source, both the prism and the light
Beam split into the eye’s wide palette.
The splash displaced a volume of light
Equal to one sun, this light the light
That made of the shadow cross a light
Cross to bear, the light that raised my light-
Weight body until then strange to flight
But now, death made light of by his dying,
Light-footed, fallen, risen, flying.
Meditation/Homily: Offered by Matt Bentley
I must confess that I’ve always been a little puzzled by the phrase ‘take up your cross’. This year, though, I feel compelled to jump into the darkness of Lent to explore what, at least, taking up the cross means to me. Amit Majmudar’s poem gives us a possible way forward, connecting the cross of the crucifixion to our own shadow selves. And, in fact, when I imagine Jesus asking us to take up our shadows, that seems like an invitation I can navigate, whether we’re talking about the shadow of death, the shadow of the self, or the shadow of community.
But let’s start at the cross anyway. Its long dark shadow is everywhere in the church and the church year – it’s the shadow of death from the 23rd Psalm, it’s the sword piercing Mary’s soul, it’s the smudge of dead palms on our foreheads at Ash Wednesday, and it’s just around the corner of Christmas with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Wherever we turn, there is the shadow of death.
The shadow of death, for mere mortals, is everywhere, too. Our own fear of death extends like the arms of the cross into all sorts of directions: What if I die before I have the opportunity to x,y, or z? What if a loved one dies before I do? What if I die before a loved one does? There’s an odd comfort in the fact that the answer to all of those questions is, first, you will. They will. You will.
But the shadow of death also pops up in other ways, leading in one extreme, to a cautious life lived so carefully, so afraid of taking risks, that the fear of harm or death ends up taking all of the life out of life. Or, in the other extreme, to a glorification of war, of hero worship, of selfish risk-taking that ends up sacrificing community for self, rather than the other way around.
So, what is one to do? Majmudar’s words may resonate with you: I just couldn’t breathe in that shadow until I made myself a shadow. Paradoxically, embracing our mortality just might allow us a certain relief – relief that being mortal means we don’t have to live forever. relief at the gift of not having to be perfect.
Being mortal means not only living under the shadow of death, but also coming to terms with the shadow of the self.
It’s no wonder that many religious traditions include some kind of shadow symbolism of duality, whether it’s the yin and yang of Taoism, or St. John of the Cross’s Dark night of the Soul.
If we make ourselves shadows, if we take up our cross, if we take up our shadows, we admit our mortality, we acknowledge the ugly parts of the self and hold them up to the divine light, in part because hiding them only makes them creep out or leap out like an unwanted growth.
Some attributes of our shadow selves are results of cultural shadows: scars of trauma or abuse, shadows of sexism, racism, homophobia, and other discrimination.
And some of our shadows are just part of who we are: negative versions of positive attributes. Stubbornness that in better light looks like confidence, debilitating passivity that in better light looks like saintly forbearance.
To pretend that these shadows don’t exist is to love only part of oneself, and therefore to not love completely. Again, there’s a comfort in allowing ourselves the freedom to ‘own’ what we most hate about ourselves, and to let go of the pressure of keeping those things unnamed. (Before coming out of the closet, I remember keeping a list of all of the people who knew my big secret – and it was stressful to manage that list, to manage conversations, and to carry that weight of worrying who else might know. That shadow is mostly no longer a shadow, one cannot avoid absorbing societal and culture homophobia deep in the soul.)
Anyway, the alternative to taking up our shadow is to go on silencing and ignoring the shadow. In doing so, we let those shadow attributes, like the unnamed Voldemort in Harry Potter, continue to have power. As Dumbledore said, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
To me, then, to deny oneself as Jesus asks in today’s reading from Mark requires us first to take up our shadow and embrace our full self – shadow and light, fear and hope, clumsy ineptitude and graceful gesture. To be a shadow is to face the light, to own the light of truth, to accept the healing presence of Christ’s light.
Of course, it isn’t ever all about us – at some point, following Jesus’s invitation to take up the cross means to acknowledge the shadows in our culture and society. This means naming and admitting the role we play in our societal shadows. Owning our participation in the shadow of systematic racism, in the shadow of harm done to the earth. It means, in short, to shine the light of truth on injustice, and to seek the light of Christ in all persons.
But it all starts with taking up the cross and facing our shadows.
Lent is the time for reconfiguring the shadow not as a mark of shame, but of evidence of the beauty of brokenness and of mortality. All – or at least most – beauty reaches the eye, the ear, the heart, the brain, because of the effect of contrasting forces: dark/light, loud/soft, high/low. Why would the beauty of our own selves be any different?
Questions for reflection:
- What are your own shadows? How do these shadows show up in your day-to-day existence? When have you been able to see them as gifts?
- Imagine a beloved figure – a grandmother, a mentor – wrapping your shadow self in an embrace of light. What does that feel like?
- Re-read Majmudar’s poem, this time considering its yin/yang structure. What does the poem leave you feeling? wondering?
We bring to God a troubled situation in our world
We bring to God, silently, someone whom we find hard to forgive or trust
We bring ourselves to God that we might grow in generosity of spirit, clarity of mind, and warmth of affection
We offer our thanks to God for the blessings in our lives
We name before God those who have died.
Gracious God, you hear all our prayers: those we speak aloud, those we hold in our hearts, and those prayers for which we have no words. Hear the prayers of your people, and grant them as may be best for us, for the sake of your holy name. Amen.
Accept our thanks for all you have done, O God. Our hands were empty, and you filled them.
May Christ’s holy, healing, enabling Spirit be with us every step of the way, and be our guide as our road changes and turns, and the blessing of God our Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life be among us now and remain with us forever. Amen.