Dearly Beloved in Christ,
Lent is the period of preparation through prayer, fasting and alms-giving for the greatest of all Christian celebrations – Easter Day, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the tomb on the third day after his crucifixion. The word Lent meant Spring in early English, referring to the lengthening of the light from the winter solstice onward through the vernal equinox. When New York’s newly-created Cardinal referred on Ash Wednesday to Lent as akin to “spring training,” he was not only in tune with America’s national pastime of baseball but with classical Christian usage. Spring training it is.
Lent is now of forty days duration. It has been both longer and shorter. The period of fasting for Easter in the earliest days of Christianity did not exceed two or three days. Forty days was chosen as Lent’s length (q.v.!) because of Christ’s own forty-day fast and temptation by Satan in the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry. But Lent was kept differently in different places. Some churches did not fast on Saturdays or Sundays, and so Lent was seven weeks long but contained only 36 fasting days. When Sundays were exempted in the West, the four days from Ash Wednesday to the first Sunday in Lent were added to complete the number forty. During the early days of the Church the fasting observance was very strict. Only one meal a day, taken towards evening, was allowed, and flesh-meat and fish, and in most places also eggs and dairy products, were forbidden. From the ninth century onwards these strictures have been steadily relaxed.
The Book of Common Prayer (1979) states that “The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial: Ash Wednesday and the other weekdays of Lent and of Holy Week, except the feast of the Annunciation. Good Friday and all other Fridays of the year, in commemoration of the Lord’s crucifixion, except for Fridays in the Christmas and Easter seasons, and any Feast of our Lord which occurs on a Friday.” But these acts of discipline and self denial are not further defined. Fasting traditionally means the reduction of food eaten or meals taken. Abstinence means giving up particular foods or drinks. It is up to each of us to use the Lenten observance as we will to our benefit as a preparation for Holy Week and Easter.
It seems to me that the Prophet Isaiah (58:1-12) puts it best concerning fasting: Let us fast and abstain from our sins, vices and bad habits! Put away, he says, the pointing of the accusing finger, the brandishing of the angry fist, the wagging of the gossipy, slanderous tongue. Share your bread with the hungry, comfort the sick, befriend the lonely, open your hand to the poor. All this brings us back to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, to the “spring-training” of the spirit. Listen to these fine words by Saint Peter Chrysologus, Bishop of Ravenna, 1500 years ago: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them: they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy: if you want your petition to be heard, then hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”
The reason why fasting and prayer are connected is that we need to clear space in order to pray. While festive eating and drinking are not known for being conducive to prayer, even less conducive are the various other distractions of contemporary life. Nearly everyone seems wired to electronic devices – phoning, emailing, texting, tweeting, whatever. Hardly a church service goes by without these contraptions making disruptive noise. I cannot think of a better “act of discipline and self-denial” than to fast and abstain from these things, to shut them down in order to have a conversation, a walk, even a meal and, certainly, time to be silent and to pray. Let us break off our bondage to these devices and rediscover the world, the people, and the good Lord, around us.
RECOMMENDED BOOK FOR LENT
For Christmas one of our members gave me Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of his Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo, with Lynn Vincent. You can read it in two nights, or in one, as I almost did, by staying up into the wee hours. A four-year-old boy, the child of a Midwestern Wesleyan minister (the narrator), nearly dies of a ruptured appendix, recovering after a terrifying ordeal for his family. As time goes on, the child reveals things that make it clear that he has been, as the book says, in heaven, conveying things that he otherwise could not have known at his age. It rings of authenticity and reminds me of the nineteenth century story of St. Bernadette, the young French girl who had the first encounter at Lourdes with Our Lady. The skeptical adults around the children were simply overmastered by what the children testified. Heaven is for Real is my recommended book for Lent. It’s available in our bookstore or online.
WINTER BOOK REPORTS
For the past ten years Nancy and I have spent our post-Christmas break in Rincon, Puerto Rico, which we call Monhegan South. We live as we do on Monhegan Island, Maine, in July – without a car and very simply. This affords good reading opportunities. We have some recommendations. First, The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund DeWaal. DeWaal is a renowned ceramicist, the son of a former Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, and this is his first book: the story of his fabulously wealthy Jewish forebears on his paternal grandmother’s side, the Ephrussi. It centers on a collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny carvings of ivory, bone or wood, and the collection’s passage through the family’s history out of Russia, to Paris, to Vienna, to Japan, to London – to the author’s home. How did the collection survive intact through Hitler’s Third Reich, which killed many family members? It is a riveting tale.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is a New York story using the high-wire feat between the Twin Towers in 1974 by Philippe Petit as its symbolic center. Yet it is a post-9/11 novel, featuring saintly grace amongst drugs and prostitution in the Bronx, grief over the Vietnam War, a vignette in Ireland, and much more. It makes you feel grateful for being a member of the human race. McCann’s novel won the National Book Award in 2009.
The Spy Who Jumped off the Screen, by Thomas Caplan,is a page-turner, a thriller about the theft and sale of nuclear warheads. It kept each of us up late at night to get to the finish. One of Caplan’s central insights is that the disguise of its hero consists precisely in his worldwide fame. Another is that people who do evil deeds often require justification for what they do. Tommy Caplan has known President Clinton, who wrote the book’s introduction, since they were dormitory mates at Georgetown University. He is also is a long-time, long-distance (he lives in Maryland) worshiper at Saint Thomas and staunch supporter of its mission.
My fifth recommendation is C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign, part of his Matthew Shardlake mystery series set in Tudor England. Sovereign, historically credible and well researched as a novel, provides an unforgettable picture of England’s most notorious and frightening monarch. Henry VIII, a Renaissance man who began with real intellectual and artistic brilliance and authentic Christian piety, became obsessed (possessed seems a better word) with his women and his need to have a male heir, changing into a capricious tyrant inviting such adjectives as suspicious, cruel, lustful and murderous. How paradoxically fitting, that after violent swings between Catholic and Protestant and back again and again – all caused by Henry – the Tudor Age would conclude with England’s greatest monarch and the architect of what we now know as Anglicanism, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I.
From Thanksgiving through Epiphany and on into February, Saint Thomas hosted twelve funerals or memorial services in as many weeks. Some were very large gatherings, drawn by tragedy and grief for life cut short, or by esteem and gratitude for long lives well lived. We had an epochal death in the Saint Thomas family – our great Organist and Master of Choristers from 1971 to 2004, Gerre Hancock. Nearly one thousand people gathered on Saturday, February 4th, for Gerre’s Solemn Requiem. We saw hundreds of Choir School alumni; organists and musicians; former choirmen; parishioners, and others pay tribute by their presence. The hymn-singing was thrilling. Thousands more listened to the service on the webcast. There is no need for me to repeat what you can read and hear elsewhere on the website. But it should be noted in the Rector’s Chronicle that the death of Gerre Hancock is the end of an era in sacred music – at Saint Thomas and throughout the church at large. God be thanked for all Gerre did for Saint Thomas Church and Choir School. May Gerre rest in the peace of the Lord and rise with him in glory.
I want to take this opportunity to commend the Saint Thomas team of clergy and staff during these days of so many special funerals. Some of the funerals occurred while several of us were away after Christmas, and these services were rendered beautifully by those who were here – priests, musicians, lay staff and volunteers. In particular I want to thank Fr. Michael Spurlock and Linda Morfi, Fr. Joel Daniels, Barbara Pettus and Ann Kaplan, Associate Organist Fred Teardo, David Daniel and Andrew Kimsey on the website and webcasting, and Warden and Head Acolyte William Wright, for extraordinary service. At the center of it all were Verger Roberta Brill (who must sometimes feel like a hockey goalie with five pucks in play); and Assistant Verger Jerry Givins. Douglas Robbe, Secretary to the Rector, emailed me to praise the teamwork as “one of the reasons I want to work here as long as possible.” Me too.
THE EVERY MEMBER CANVASS
You keep hearing from me that Saint Thomas, to gain the annual financial health we require for long-run stability, needs an annual fund of pledging/giving which is about twice what it is now. But do not be discouraged, because we keep gaining ground, and this year’s total of pledging for 2012 is now on track to set a new record for the Every Member Canvass. At well over $1.3 million, we are now at three times what we were when I began as Rector in 1996. We have come a long way. And for that I want to say how proud I am of the congregation and its friends, and how thankful I am to God for inspiring you with generosity. In this we are “tacking against the prevailing wind” of the time.
THE ORGAN FUND
An Ad Hoc committee to solicit funds for the organ campaign, chaired by William R. Miller, CBE, has been working assiduously for over a year now. We have not yet found the “needle in the haystack,” i.e., the gift or gifts amounting to $5 million that we need to fulfill the money for the organ. But this kind of work, which involves networking and searching beyond the regular congregation of members and friends, takes time. You have to get down on your hands and knees and look, and keep looking. There are people of means who appreciate what our ministry of music represents, who understand the issue of the organ which challenges us – we have to find them. Ora et labora: we must pray and work at it.
In order to begin the new organ, we also need to restore at least three stained glass windows on the south side of the church – particularly one right above the Rector’s stall! However, we do not have adequate funds to restore those windows. You may recall that the parish, in 2008, successfully appealed to the city’s authorities to contract to sell a large amount of our air rights, unneeded by the church and therefore a potential source of capital funds, to a developer planning a building along 53rd Street next to MoMA. A letter was sent in 2007 to the parish on this subject. The recession of 2008 delayed the developer’s plans. Were the building to commence, requiring the use of Saint Thomas’ air rights, we would continue the stained glass window restoration – clearing the way for the organ work to begin.
I strongly encourage you to see the six-minute video on our website by Jon Meacham concerning the organ. This communicates the urgency of the situation so far as the condition of the organ is concerned. Frederick Swann, one of the greatest church musicians of his and Gerre Hancock’s generation who was for 25 years Director of Music at Riverside Church and for six years President of the American Guild of Organists, wrote from retirement in California after hearing the webcast of Gerre’s Requiem. He encouraged us to carry forward the mission and praised what we are doing, and concluded, “I certainly hope the new organ can become a reality. The present organ sounds fine when played fortissimo, but I’m well aware of the serious problems it has, and its limitations in accompanying the Anglican service.”
ON TO GOOD FRIDAY AND EASTER
Be sure to check the website on the services of Holy Week and Easter, with preachers – especially Bishop Robert Gillies of Aberdeen, Scotland, for the Three Hour Service of the Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross. And music: Don’t miss Bach’s St. John Passion by the Choir of Men and Boys under the direction of John Scott on the Friday, March 30, before Palm Sunday.
Learn to navigate the Saint Thomas website pages online. It’s fun and fascinating, even (especially) for aging Boomers. There is a whole world revealing the life of our church in all its aspects – better than a radio station for dimension and accessibility. What a blessing for mission and outreach this ministry has proved to be.
May the Lord be with you in this holy season. As was said by the Apostle and as recently as Ash Wednesday, “You are dead. But Christ is risen. Your life lies hid with Christ in God. Hang on to him for dear life.” May Lent bring you to a most joyous Holy Week and Easter.
Faithfully your Priest and Rector,
Andrew C. Mead
 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Third Edition,“Lent,” p. 966.
The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 17. [In the Roman Catholic Church since 1966, the obligation to fast has been restricted to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Persons with issues of health, under the age of 18 or over the age of 60 are dispensed from the fasting obligation.]
Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year, compiled by Peter Atwell, p. 156. Chrysologus means “golden word,” a nickname bestowed upon a western counterpart to St. John Chrysostom (“golden mouth”) in Constantinople. Both bishops are “Doctors of the Church.”