Breath of the Spirit Reflection: The Poetry and Beauty of Lent
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February 21st, 2021: The First Sunday of Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22
Reflection from Lori Frey Ranner
For the most part, liturgical language in the Roman Church tends to be a sober affair: logical, prosaic, straightforward. Every so often, however, one catches a glimpse of poetry.
There is a line from the third Eucharistic Prayer that has unfortunately been somewhat altered in the present translation:
May this sacrifice which has made our peace with You, advance the peace and salvation of all the world.
To me, it always meant that goodness and selflessness by their very nature cannot be contained by a single act, nor wholly channeled toward a single end. Such is the marvelous, mysterious generosity of loving that it overflows in every direction; the world is never a poorer place because of an act of love. It is a supremely comforting thought - through the sacrifice of the Mass, God extends a hand down to set us aright; God is the friend who is always willing to make the first move. But even more, in the act of God raising us from our despondency and brokenness, the world itself comes a little closer to being healed. One more wound stitched shut; one more drop on the parched tongue of humanity.
Dostoevsky might have had something similar in mind when he wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” In the early days of COVID lockdown, this quote inspired me to share on social media a work of art that moved me deeply – not because I thought the Berlin kylix (seen below) would somehow heal the bodies of the sufferers or stop the virus from raging – but because, as the Eucharistic Prayer suggests, it seemed right that the more beauty and goodness is shared in the world, the greater the communion among souls, the closer those souls grow to God, and in this way, we all inch a little nearer to salvation. Perhaps this is why we bring flowers to the dead: not because the dead have eyes to see, but because here the very act of sharing beauty is a defiance of boundaries. This year, when so many have been deprived of so much, our Lenten action might look different: perhaps it is time not to focus on pruning away, but rather adding back some of the loveliness lost to the world.
The heart of any covenant is an intersection: the Latin root of the word means a coming-together, and no pact can occur without a meeting. This intersection is most often commemorated by a symbol to recall a place where there is no longer you and I, but now We. Whether this symbol be a toast made, a document signed, a rainbow, or a Baptism, it speaks of a chasm that has been broached, a connection made, a link between two parties who now promise to be for the other, rather than for themselves alone.
In the biblical context, covenants like the one symbolized by Noah’s rainbow are more than just rebinding and repairing the brokenness of the past, they are a bold statement about the future: never again, God says, will we be parted. This rainbow – our rainbow - is a promise, not of smooth sailing and blue skies, but of an eternity of dogged commitment and care. It is the tender gaze of a lover: I will never lose sight of you, no matter how far you roam.
Julian of Norwich assures us that God “did not say you will not be assailed, you will not belabored, you will not be disquieted.” Rather, she tells us that God grants us a much more potent assurance: that we will not be overcome. The letter of Peter is particularly blunt in its agreement. Even Jesus suffered to “lead you to life in God;” which is to say, not even the Son of God was free from the pain and crippling doubts of human existence. Mark tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert to face temptation - in ways that are only too easy for us to understand - by selfishness, ambition, despair. “[Jesus] was among wild beasts;” Mark’s laconic prose tells us all we need to know. During the Lent in which we now find ourselves - embedded in pandemic, the horizon of a complete return to normalcy still ever-receding and our ministering angels all too often in confounding disguise - perhaps it will be this place of desolation, of loneliness and hardship, where we draw closest to Jesus.
But like Noah, Jesus is a survivor. Once on the other side of the trial, Jesus too is immersed in rebuilding and re-connecting with what was lost. Jesus chooses the option of the Other – the connection, the covenant that the psalmist tells us will lead us in the ways of love and truth. In Mark’s very next verse, Jesus has moved, back from the desert into the heart of life, the Galilee - from the frying pan of personal demons right into the fire of socio-political turmoil. John has just been arrested, and it is Jesus, without a moment’s hesitation, who picks up John’s endangered mission, and carries on.
Lori Frey Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History.
Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of lecturer at Loyola New Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. She currently teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and World Religions at Ursuline Academy.
She is married and mother to three children. In her random bits of free time, she is writing one novel, editing a second, and turning a third into a podcast.