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Golgotha Prayer

April 9, 2020

Dear Jesus, there you hang flattened out against the timbers – son of Mary, Son of God – bleeding profusely, crying out in agony, suffering excruciating pain  (ex crux – from the cross).

Christ, you are innocent, the one person without sin dying as a common criminal between two thieves.

Why has this happened to you? Who has required this death? Pilate? 

Shall we blame the Jews as Hitler did? The high priest was corrupt and incited the demand for your death, but the great majority of Jews were innocent of your death.

Shall we blame the Romans? They would not tolerate civil disturbance, but Pilate tried to free you. He washed his hands of the entire matter.

Is this death a ransom, a bargain struck between the devil and God? Did they, like kids trading baseball cards make a deal, one Jesus for the rest of humanity?

Or did God in His justice require your death? Is that what God is like, demanding His pound of flesh?

Jesus, I know that we who follow you required this. We are there with the mob shouting “Crucify!”  We required your death because we would never believe how much you love us if you had not loved us to death.

In my mind’s eye, I come again to the place called the skull. Please forgive me, Jesus Please, dear Lord and Savior, forgive my sins.

Amen

HOLY WEEK: CONTEMPLATION AND CELEBRATION

April 4, 2020

For Christians, Holy Week is a time for somber contemplation and reflection on the passion of Jesus. The events that unfolded in those days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday were filled with a sense of foreboding. Imagine the angst, the fear, and the insecurity for those closest to Jesus. Perhaps we can begin to understand those days of uncertainty and dread as we live through this time in which we currently find ourselves.

By Friday evening of that week, Jesus had been denied, betrayed, arrested, sentenced, crucified, and buried. His tomb was sealed. To those early followers of Jesus, it looked, for all the world, like their faith and hope had been dashed, crushed beyond recovery. Then came Sunday morning and the resurrection!

The Easter season is a time of sharp contrast. It brings a dichotomy of emotions. The traditional stations of the cross lead us down our own Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrow. According to the Gospel accounts, the feelings of Easter morning were not immediate joy. The first visitors to the tomb of Jesus found the grave empty. It looked like the case of a missing body requiring a Crime Scene Investigation, CSI Jerusalem. Then, emotions shifted to those more appropriate for Halloween. A ghost-like figure began making appearances. It took a while for the disciples to recognize Jesus. Once they did, the celebration began.

Holy Week is a time for music that inspires contemplation. Clare and I enjoy two classical renditions of the passion of Christ by Johann Sebastian Bach. The “Saint John Passion” was composed in 1724 for a Good Friday vespers service. Written in 1727, the “Saint Matthew Passion” is regarded as the most magnificent setting of the passion story in Western music.  “The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross,” an orchestral work by Joseph Haydn, is another favorite. For Easter Sunday, “Messiah” by George Frederic Handel is renowned.

Were I to make a Holy Week playlist, I would include “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” by Isaac Watts, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the African American spiritual “Were You There?” There are many other cherished old hymns about the cross.

When it comes to Holy Week observance, no faith group does it better than the Moravians. At Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the congregation gathers each evening during Holy Week for scripture reading. On Thursday night, Maundy Thursday, they observe Holy Communion. The congregation gathers at noon on Good Friday for the Gospel readings associated with the crucifixion. That service concludes at 3:00 p.m., the time when the body of Jesus was thought to have been taken down from the cross.

On Friday night, the Moravians gather for their Love Feast, a service of music and silence during which Moravian buns and hot Moravian coffee are served. On Saturday, the people decorate the graves of loved ones in preparation for Easter. The Great Sabbath service is on Saturday night. Then, bands from several Moravian congregations march through the streets playing the music of Easter until dawn. The Easter sunrise service at Home Church attracts thousands of worshippers and is a high point of the church year.

As you might imagine, this year, all these activities have been canceled at Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. The Rev. Chaz Snider, Chair of Salem Congregation Central Board of Elders, announced that the 248th Easter Sunrise Service will be conducted by live stream only.  The service may be viewed in its entirety from the Home Church sanctuary and will include real time camera shots of God’s Acre, the cemetery just outside the church.  If you wish to participate in the service, please go to http://www.moraviansunrise.org at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 12.

Of course, the Easter celebration for many includes good food and a few treats. Moravian sugar cake is a favorite in our family. The potato-based sweet is the perfect addition to an Easter breakfast. We also would recommend traditional hot cross buns. My mama usually made a big strawberry shortcake or a banana pudding for dessert to follow our family Easter diner.   

Easter derives its name from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. In the second century A.D., Christian missionaries sought to convert the tribes of northern Europe. The holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus coincided with pagan springtime celebrations. These feasts also emphasized the triumph of life over death.  Gradually, the Christian observance took the name Easter and absorbed traditional symbols of fertility. Some, like eggs and rabbits, became models for confections to be enjoyed as the season of the Lent comes to an end on Easter Sunday.

A well-filled Easter basket usually overflows with jellybeans, chocolate eggs, marshmallow chickens, and a chocolate rabbit. Sometimes, if the Easter Bunny were conscience-stricken, a book, an educational toy, or even a toothbrush and toothpaste would appear in our children’s Easter baskets. Candy, however, was always the main attraction. 

Standing as a silent sentinel, the chocolate bunny guards the other Easter confections. I learned early on that chocolate hares are not all created equal. Though some are disappointingly hollow, others are products of world-class chocolatiers. For a truly delicious treat, look for a solid dark chocolate rabbit.

Jellybeans are the size of a red kidney bean. They come in a variety of colors and flavors. The interior jelly traces its origin back hundreds of years to a candy called Turkish Delight. The shell is essentially the same as a recipe developed in the late 19th century for Jordan Almond candies.

Jellybeans were created at the beginning of the 20th century. It was not until 1930 that jellybeans, because they looked like miniature eggs, came to be considered an Easter candy.

Just Born, a candy manufacturer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, produces Peeps.  The Just Born Company introduced Peeps in 1953. Peeps are small marshmallow candies shaped like baby chickens, bunnys, or lambs.

When our children were young, among their favorite things to find in their Easter baskets were Cadbury Eggs. An Easter basket was not complete without one or two of the foil-wrapped treats. The taste of a Cadbury Egg is exquisite.  These crème-filled chocolate eggs may seem like pure decadence, but a genuine ethical concern prompted the origin of the confection. 

In Victorian Britain, industrial workers, including mothers and children, spent long days working in dirty, dangerous factories.  Families lived in cramped tenements.  Widespread alcoholism contributed to poverty and domestic violence.  The Salvation Army attacked these problems with soup, soap, and salvation.  John Cadbury and his family took a different approach to social reform.  They used cocoa.

The Cadbury’s belonged to the Society of Friends, the Quakers.  In 1831, John opened a shop in Birmingham, England, selling coffee and tea, as alternatives to alcoholic beverages.  He soon added cocoa. 

Not only did the Cadburys build a state-of-the-art chocolate factory, but they also built a village, enabling their employees to escape the dingy city of Birmingham.  The small community featured cottages with gardens, public parks, swimming pools, shops, schools, and churches.   In keeping with the Cadbury’s convictions about alcohol, there was no pub available.

The Cadbury Company became, not only a successful enterprise but also a sterling example of a corporation making ethical decisions.

This year as we shelter in place, Holy Week will be different for many of us. May I suggest that, for Christians, it be a time of contemplation on the passion of Christ. Make scripture and music a part of your observance. Check out what is available online from your own church.

For all people of faith, pray for those working on the front lines to battle this pandemic, for those who are sick, for those who mourn, and for those who are economically distressed.  Reach out by phone, by mail, or by e-mail to those who are alone.  Support your place of worship financially.

Let this week of social distancing be a time of celebration for all of us. Enjoy staying in touch with those you love even at a distance. Enjoy some good music and some good food. If your diet permits, enjoy a Cadbury Egg, pop a handful of jellybeans, or eat a chocolate rabbit, beginning with the ears.

Here is a scripture verse to ponder. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

I invite you to contemplate and celebrate the goodness of God this Holy Week.

THE FEAST OF FOOLS

March 28, 2020

During the Middle Ages, a celebration called the Feast of Fools was observed each year between the Vernal Equinox and April 1. Pious priests and simple townsfolk wore masks, sang silly songs, and performed outrageous skits.  Members of the clergy painted their faces like clowns.  Scornful of their superiors, they dressed in the robes of a church cleric, such as a bishop or a cardinal.  People in the community elected a Lord of Misrule to ridicule their king.  Often the person elected was a young boy. 

In the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo writes an account of the Feast of Fools in which Quasimodo serves as the King of Fools.

Sometimes the parody became profane. The ceremonies mocked the performance of the highest offices in the church. Wags, dressed in different kinds of masks and disguises, engaged in songs and dances and practiced all manner of revelry within the church building.

An altar boy was selected to play the role of the Pope.  Even worship was an occasion for joking, poking fun at people who led the Mass.  No customs and no conventions were immune to ridicule.  Anybody in authority might be lampooned.  The celebration ended on April 1, which was, at that time, New Year’s Day.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar.

Charles IX of France adopted the Gregorian calendar immediately.  New Year’s Day was moved to January 1.  Word of the change traveled slowly. Some folks were only informed of the modification several years later. Others were set in their ways and refused to acknowledge the change. Their obstinacy reminds me a little of the way some folks in Kentucky reacted when Daylight Saving Time became law in 1966. They just flat-out refused to participate.     

When the new calendar was introduced in 1582, some insisted on celebrating the Feast of Fools and the beginning of the New Year on April 1. In France, those who continued to do so were labeled fools by the general public and were subject to ridicule and practical jokes. Some were sent on fools’ errands or sent invitations to nonexistent parties. The targets of these pranks became known as a poisson d’avril or April fish because a young fish is easily caught. One common practice was to pin a paper fish on the back of the gullible person as a joke.

The custom of prank-playing on April 1 continued, eventually crossing the English Channel to Britain and Scotland. No one was exempt from the teasing. The tradition also spread throughout Western Europe in the eighteenth century. The English and the French introduced April Fools’ Day to the American colonies.

April Fools’ Day has taken on an international flavor with each country celebrating the holiday in its own way.

Pranks range from simple teasing to more involved schemes. Setting a roommate’s alarm clock back an hour was a common gag in my college days. Elaborate practical jokes played on friends or relatives may last the entire day.

Whatever the prank, the trickster ends the foolishness by declaring to the victim, “April Fool!”

On April 1 last year, descriptions of a new batch of practical jokes made the rounds on Facebook. They ranged from pictures of funny faces drawn with indelible markers on every item in the refrigerator to a report of a mustard-filled chocolate bunny. Yuck!

At Cambridge University, a sign was posted on a door informing those trying to enter that their identification cards would no longer work. The note said that the card-swipe device had been changed to be a voice-activated system. Those wishing to enter need only speak their name into the mechanism. Throughout the day, students and faculty shouted desperately, trying to make the door open. It was all to no avail. Finally, the frustrated people were greeted with shouts of “April Fool!”   

When I was growing up, April Fools’ Day was much anticipated. One memorable escapade was placing a beautifully wrapped box, albeit empty, by the side of the road as if it had been carelessly lost. When a passerby stopped to rescue the package, kids in hiding jumped out to shout, “April Fool!”

In our family, Clare usually pulls the first joke of the day, almost always involving food, a tradition that goes back to her grandmother, Mother Dee. Among Clare’s classic heirloom pranks are freshly baked apple cinnamon muffins, each stuffed with a cotton ball. Tasty!

Occasionally, the news media gets into the spirit of the day. The Internet Web site http://www.museumofhoaxes.com lists one hundred of the best pranks.

In 1957, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the elimination of the spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. A film of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees accompanied the report. Many viewers called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.

The April 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated published a story by George Plimpton. He reported that the New York Mets had signed Sidd Finch, a new rookie pitcher. Finch could reportedly throw a baseball 168 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy. Surprisingly, Sidd Finch had never even played in a baseball game. Instead, he had mastered the art of pitching in a Tibetan monastery.

Gullible Mets fans celebrated their fantastic luck!

In 1962 only one television channel existed in Sweden, broadcasting in black and white. On April 1, the station’s technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to color merely by pulling a nylon stocking over their TV screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people tried the technique. Some claimed that it worked.

To commemorate the hoax, color TV broadcasts began in Sweden on April 1, 1970.

In 1996 the Taco Bell Corporation announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell. The National Historic Park in Philadelphia reported that hundreds of outraged citizens called to express their anger.

Later in the day, when asked about the sale of the Liberty Bell, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold. It would now be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

Ordinarily, we think of April Fools’ Day as an opportunity for tomfoolery. 

I was ordained to the ministry on April Fools’ Day 1970.  Some have thought that nothing could have been more appropriate. I must admit that at the time, I did not consider the long-term implications of celebrating this significant event in my life on a day for pranks.  In subsequent years, I have found this convergence of dates to be the reason for great hilarity among my colleagues and congregants.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We are fools for Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10).

I reckon so.

FROM MARCH MADNESS TO SADNESS TO GLADNESS

March 21, 2020

March is a restless time.  Many of our familiar clichés and quotes about March confirm the unsettled nature of this, the third month on our calendars.  

The time-honored adage, “in like a lion, and out like a lamb,” describes the dramatic changes we might expect in the weather.

Shakespeare’s warning to Julius Caesar, “Beware the ides of March” signals a feeling of foreboding. 

“As wild as a March hare” implies that even rabbits are more impetuous during these thirty-one days. 

Maybe the humorous poet Ogden Nash put it best:

                              Indoors or out, no one relaxes

                              In March, that month of wind and taxes,

                              The wind will presently disappear,

                              The taxes last us all the year.

In March, cabin fever gives way to spring fever.  The winter has kept us more confined than we like, with much of the colder months being spent on the inside looking out.  All around are signs of the hope of Spring.  School children, bundled against the March winds, fly kites in open fields. 

Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her sonnets, 

                                  A little Madness in the Spring

                                   Is wholesome even for a King.

Spring-cleaning, which goes much deeper than the ordinary, is one example of wholesome madness.  Most homemakers have a moment, often in the Spring, when an impulse to tidy up seizes them.  The urge takes them from the ceiling to the floor and from the back of closets and cabinets to the far reaches of basement and attic.  It is a particularly virulent form of spring fever that can become confounding and even annoying to those not afflicted with the sickness. 

What is worse is when the spring-cleaning madness, though wholesome in its outcome, works at cross-purposes with March Madness of the basketball variety.  Many a couch potato has been rousted from comfort by a renegade vacuum cleaner, intruding into the line of vision during the final seconds of an overtime game.

During March, the National Collegiate Athletic Association showcases conference tournaments, closely followed by the Big Dance, the NCAA basketball tournament. The roundball frenzy has become, indeed, March Madness.

But not this year. March of 2020 abruptly changed from March Madness to March sadness.

On Wednesday, March 10, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz and later, teammate Donovan Mitchell said they tested positive for the coronavirus. That night National Basketball League commissioner Adam Silver showed the world what courageous leadership looked like when he announced the league would suspend the NBA season indefinitely.

The New Orleans Pelicans with their rookie star Zion Williamson were to face the Sacramento Kings in what was the last game before the season was suspended.  But prior to tip-off, the Pelicans locker room learned that Courtney Kirkland, the veteran referee who was scheduled to officiate the game, had been exposed to the virus.  Just two days before, he had called a game between the Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors in Salt Lake City.

Within hours of the NBA’s decision, other sports leagues followed suit. Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and the National Hockey League all acted. MLB called off spring training and delayed its season, MLS suspended play for 30 days, and the NHL suspended its season.

The NBA announcement caught many in the sports world by surprise, including many NBA players and fans.  Lakers star LeBron James tweeted: “Man, we are canceling sporting events, school, office work, etc. What we really need to cancel is 2020! … God bless and stay safe.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association hesitated to suspend the college basketball season. After all, it was March Madness Tournament time.

Initially, on Wednesday, the NCAA announced a plan to confront the pandemic health crisis. It said the tournament would go on as scheduled, but fans would not be allowed to attend the games.

The following day, just as Clemson was about to play against the number one seed, Florida State, in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, the NCAA canceled all basketball. South Carolina’s game against Arkansas, scheduled for later that day, was also scrubbed.

Most disappointing of all for Palmetto State residents was the cancelation of the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The Lady Gamecocks were favored to win the national championship. Their coach and Coach of the Year, Dawn Staley, was philosophical.

This is a difficult time with so many conflicting emotions,” she said. “First and foremost, we have to recognize how important it is to do the right thing for our community. Sports is a big part of our lives, but just one part of how we are connected to each other. We need to step back and think about the larger good served by canceling events that put people at risk.

Thousands of college athletes were disappointed by the way the season has ended in basketball and many other spring sports as campuses close and move to online instruction. March Madness turned to March sadness.

The sadness runs much deeper than sports. As I pen these words, the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly a quarter of a million people in 173 countries worldwide. Almost 10,000 people have died.

Historically, there have been far worse outbreaks. The Black Death, from 1331 to 1353, caused an estimated 75 million fatalities. The Spanish flu, from 1918 to 1920, infected 500 million people around the world, including people on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic. That pandemic resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million people.

Currently, many of us face uncomfortable adjustments in our lives. Grocery store shelves are depleted. Even bathroom tissue is in short supply. Anxiety and depression are intense for many. Still, I have discovered reasons for sadness to give way to gladness.

In New Orleans, Spartanburg’s own Zion Williamson pledged to cover the salaries of all Pelican arena workers for the next thirty days. Rudy Gobert, the first player to test positive for the virus, has pledged $500,000 for support of those affected by the pandemic.

My Facebook page has many posts about people trying to help others.

On the same day the NBA decided to suspend the basketball season, Pastor Lynn Unger was pondering the response to the pandemic. The Chicago Tribune reported,

Unger had been thinking about social distancing, the idea that to keep the virus from spreading, we need to stay away from one another. She’d been reflecting on a question: How do we physically distance ourselves without emotional distancing? In this strange and befuddling moment, she thought, we need to recognize that moving away from other people isn’t an act of emotional disconnection but the opposite: It’s something to do out of a sense of community and compassion for the vulnerable.

Pastor Unger sat at her kitchen table and wrote a poem.

Pandemic

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath —

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world.

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those.

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils.

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love —

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

— Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

The prophet Isaiah declares to those who have been  liberated from exile:

Those the Lord has rescued will return …with singing;

    everlasting joy will crown their heads.

Gladness and joy will overtake them,

    and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

                                                       Isaiah 51:11

If we heed the sage advice in Pastor Unger’s poem, we will find that in March 2020, our madness turned from sadness to gladness. It is the power of love that reaches across social distancing, enabling us to respond in hope and joy.

THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF SAINT PATRICK

March 14, 2020

The story of Saint Patrick, one of the most beloved of all saints, is a strange mixture of history and legend. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in England about 385 A.D. His father, from a family of high social standing, was a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. His mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours, the patron saint of beggars. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church.

As a youth, Patrick had little interest in Christianity or in education. Neither was forced upon him, but later in life, deficits in these areas would become a source of embarrassment for him. In the early 440s, he wrote in his Confessions, “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”

When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates captured him, selling him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick worked as a shepherd for his master, a Druid high priest in the religion of the ancient Celts.

In time Patrick came to view his enslavement as a test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. He explained in his Confessions that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance and allowed him to be forgiven of his sins and to be converted to Christianity.

At the age of twenty-two, Patrick had a dream, encouraging him to escape from Ireland. In that dream, the voice of God promised that he would find the way back to his homeland in England. Patrick began this journey by walking across Ireland to the coast, where he convinced sailors to let him board their ship. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the boat in France and wandered, lost, for twenty-eight days—covering 200 miles in the process. At last, Patrick was reunited with his family in England.

Patrick recounts another vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Interpreting this vision as a call from God, Patrick became determined to free the Irish from paganism by converting them to Christianity.  He never lost sight of that vision.

As a free man, Patrick traveled to Auxerre, France, where he studied, entering the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary St. Germain. In 431, Pope Celestine consecrated Patrick as Bishop of the Irish and dispatched him to Ireland to spread the gospel.

There Patrick met with hostile resistance.  Legally, he was without protection.  He wrote that he was, on one occasion, beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains.  Patrick wondered if execution awaited him.

Regardless of that reception, it is said that Patrick converted the entire country of Ireland in less than thirty years. Through his preaching, he convinced Druid priests and peasants alike that they would become “the people of the Lord and the children of God” by accepting Christianity.

Interestingly, Ireland had very few Christian martyrs. The willingness of the Irish people to accept Christianity was due in large part to Patrick’s familiarity with their culture and the Celtic religion. The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of the ancient Celtic faith. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility religion of the Celts.

According to legend, Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion. Prominent in ancient Ireland was the belief in the Triple Goddesses named Brigid, Ériu, and Morrigan.

The Gaelic word seamrog means little clover. Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock. In the Upstate of South Carolina, common clover with white flowers grows wild in many lawns. This same white clover is the plant that Patrick used to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

According to legend, Patrick is also credited with banishing all snakes from the Emerald Isle into the North Atlantic Ocean. During a forty-day fast, the tale holds that Patrick was taking a stroll on a hilltop near the sea when he encountered the serpents. The Gospel account of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan comes to mind.

All biological and archaeological evidence suggests, however, that Ireland never had snakes after the Ice Age. Author Betty Rhodes has proposed that the snakes Patrick banished referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids. Druid priests often wore tattoos of snakes on their arms.

In time Patrick brought Christian structures to Ireland by electing church officials, creating councils, founding monasteries, and organizing the country into dioceses.

Though he was never formally canonized by a Roman Pope, Patrick is on the List of Saints and has been declared a Saint in Heaven by many Catholic churches. Saint Patrick is also venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Patrick founded his first church in a barn at Saul, which was donated to him by a local chieftain.  Many believe that Patrick died at Saul but was buried alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down. Nearby on the crest of a hill is a statue of him with bronze panels showing scenes from his life.

The year of Patrick’s death is uncertain. Many scholars ascribe a date of 493, making Patrick 107 years old when he died. This improbability has led Thomas Rahilly to suggest a two-Patrick theory, the idea that two different people by the same name carried out the ministry ascribed to Patrick. The more, the merrier!

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date of his death.  In the dioceses of Ireland, it is a holy day of obligation; outside of Ireland, it can be a celebration of Irish heritage.

March 17 usually falls during the season of Lent. For more than 1,000 years, the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday. Traditionally on St. Patrick’s Day, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate later. On Saint Patty’s Day, many folks enjoy a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and Irish potatoes. Others imbibe green beer and Irish whiskey until they see leprechauns. All of these customs celebrate the feast day of a Celtic Christian saint.

Tracing my family tree led me to the McNeil clan. My kinfolk originated in Celtic Ireland.  My ancestors migrated to Scotland and later returned to Northern Ireland. This resettlement was known as the Plantation of Ulster. It took place between 1609 and 1690 when these same Celtic families were transplanted to in Northern Ireland, the land of the O’Neills.  My American ancestors were Scots-Irish.

On Saint Patrick’s Day, I plan to wear green and celebrate my heritage.

More importantly, I will remember the life of a courageous man of faith who did his best to make the world a better place.

HARBINGERS OF SPRING

March 8, 2020

Daylight Saving Time reminds us to spring forward, but that is only one hint that spring is just two weeks away.

I recall that one March, when I was a teenager, snow fell on three consecutive Wednesdays.  Just a few years ago, the temperature in the Upstate plummeted to fourteen degrees on a night in mid-March, nipping in the bud the bloom on many of our plants. 

The Bible says, “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” (Song of Solomon, King James Version) When I was a boy, I used to think of that passage as one of the strangest in the Bible.  I’ve spent a good bit of time out of doors and have rarely heard the voice of a turtle. 

In my garden, the truth of the scripture is verified by the blooming of flowering bulbs and shrubs.  The birds are singing. But so far, there is no sound from a turtle to be heard. 

I have heard a turtle a time or two.  On one occasion, it was the sound from a very large snapping turtle who had the poor taste to chomp down on a catfish line, embedding a rather large hook in his palate.  An angry snapping turtle makes an unmistakable sound.  I doubt that is what the Biblical poet had in mind.  Later translations use the word turtledove instead of turtle.  I hear the mournful cooing of those birds in my backyard every day. 

It has been an unusual winter here in the southern clime. Temperatures have been relatively mild. One or two encounters with light snow have called to mind winters past when the weather was far more severe. The happy-faced pansies and violas on our front porch dance in the breeze. I noticed green shoots emerging from the earth. Even on a day of light snowfall, I noticed yellow daffodils in bloom.

This has been one of the wettest winters on record. While another wintery blast or two will surely come our way, warmer days have brought a hint of spring to the Upstate. The Eastern bluebirds are searching for a place to nest. Before long, purple martin scouts will arrive to find a place to stay until fall. After several days of rain last week, at least five robins plucked earthworms from our yard. Male goldfinches are shedding their olive drab winter uniform to don the bright yellow feathers that give them their name.

Clare has already had an eye out for the arrival of hummingbirds. She knows what the birds know. Spring is in the air!

Stepping through our garden gate, we are greeted by spreading white and pink Lenten roses and nodding golden jonquils. They will soon be followed by purple crocus, delicate grape hyacinths, and the spikes of pale blue scilla. These plants compose a companion carpet beneath flowering trees. I have noticed a hint of yellow pollen beginning to cover my car and our porch furniture. Can spring be far away?

The nonstop procession of flowering trees in springtime is a wonder to behold. In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree that bloomed so beautifully every spring for twenty years died last summer. Still, I enjoy seeing the weeping cherries in other yards. Sergeant crab apples and Yoshino cherries each take their turn at beautifying the southern landscape. In Spartanburg, Pine Street and W. O. Ezell Boulevard will soon be lined with blossoms. Flowering peach and apple trees across the hills of the Upstate promise abundant fruit at roadside stands in the summer months ahead. The winged elm that grows near the hemlocks and the sassafras that stands above the rhododendron have less conspicuous green flowers adding a subtle touch of grace to the glory of early spring.

In our yard and throughout the Piedmont, the most eagerly awaited blossoms are those of the redbuds and dogwoods. These two trees are closely connected in several ways. Redbuds burst forth into full bloom in March. Dogwoods flower in April. The redbuds are covered with a profusion of purplish-pink flowers all along the branches. Heart-shaped leaves follow the flowers. Old-time herbalists report that its flowers, which have an agreeable acid taste, can be added to salads or used in the making of pickles. In the good old days, smaller redbud branches were boiled to make a pink dye for homespun yarn.

The dogwood is the most common flowering tree that dapples the woodlands of much of the United States in mid-spring. Described as America’s most beloved flowering tree, it has been designated the official tree of several states. Pioneers learned from the Native Americans that dogwood bark could be used to make remedies for various illnesses, including fever and headaches. Its roots were boiled to make a scarlet dye.

The redbud and the dogwood have similarities beyond their herbal use, their usefulness as sources of dye, and their sheer beauty.  They are both small, understory trees. That means they grow beneath the canopy of larger woodland trees. Generally quite hardy, both are suitable as ornamental trees for local gardens and landscapes. Each tree will reseed readily – redbuds from distinctive seedpods and dogwoods from bright red berries. More significant, perhaps, is that redbuds and dogwoods are connected in southern folklore by the season of Lent, the forty days before Easter.

The legend of the dogwood holds that until the time of the crucifixion of Christ, dogwoods grew to reach the size of mighty oaks. So strong and solid was the wood that it was chosen as the timber for the cross of Jesus. To be used for such a cruel death was distressing to the tree. In compassion, the Creator declared that the kind of tree to which Jesus was nailed would never again be used as a cross. From that time forth, all dogwood trees have been slender, bent, and twisted, not as a punishment to the tree, but as a blessing. In sympathy to the suffering of Christ, the dogwood bore white blossoms in the shape of a cross, with two long and two short petals. Each petal, on its outer edge, is marked with what appears to be the print of a rusty nail. The center of each flower, red as if stained with blood, resembles a crown of thorns. The blooming of the dogwood tree coincides with Holy Week. The flowers themselves remind us of the Good Friday story.

The flowering of the redbud tree falls earlier in the season of Lent. People of the southern Appalachian Mountains have long referred to the redbud as the Judas tree. An ancient woodcut by the artist Castor Durante depicts the figure of Judas hanging from a redbud branch. The Biblical account says that, in despair, Judas hung himself.  Again, the tradition was so distressing that, rather than cursing the redbud as a symbol of betrayal, the Creator blessed the tree with heart-shaped leaves that are in full display by Good Friday. For those who believe in the story of Christ’s death, the redbud leaves serve as a reminder that the heart of God is loving.

For me, these flowering trees of spring are evidence of the mystery and the majesty of a gracious, divine, creative hand.

OCTAGON SOAP AND THE SEASON OF LENT

March 6, 2020

Octagon soap used to be indispensable in Southern households. From scrubbing dirty work clothes to lathering hands that had come in contact with poison ivy, the yellow lye soap with eight sides and scented with lemongrass had multiple uses.

My mother, who had a strong aversion to dirt, always kept a bar of Octagon soap close by. She expected us to wash our hands before meals, whether they needed it or not. We were allowed to go barefooted after the first day of May, but that required additional foot washing. If we made an ugly comment about another person or uttered a bad word, she washed our mouth out with the same yellow soap.

I have found that whenever I wash my hands in a public restroom, trying to dry them with an automatic dryer is annoying. Those machines never get my hands completely dry.  Have you ever exited a restroom after using one of those machines, only to meet someone who wanted to shake hands?  Meeting the public with water on your hands is embarrassing.

Meeting the public with blood on your hands is incriminating.  Pilate, the Governor of Judea, washed and dried his hands in public, attempting to rid himself of any responsibility for the death of Jesus.

Scripture records, “Pilate … took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood…’” (Matthew 27:24).  Nice try, Governor.

Even Octagon soap would not have washed away his guilt.  No amount of washing could wipe his hands clean of the death soon to occur on Golgotha, the place of the skull.

Simon Peter made a bold vow on the night of Passover, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). By dawn the next morning, when the rooster crowed in downtown Jerusalem, Peter had asserted three times that he didn’t even know Jesus. Scripture says that he punctuated his denials with cursing.

My mother would have certainly washed out his mouth with soap.

Before the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed, the Gospel says that Jesus “poured water in a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…” (John 13:5). All twelve disciples were there for the foot-washing – Peter, Judas, all of them. Maybe the Lord should have used Octagon soap. The scrubbing was not enough to clean up the act of Peter, Judas, or the rest of them.

As a boy, I knew nothing about the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday was the day to clean out the fireplace. Lint was what we saw in the hair of cotton mill workers or what we found in our own belly buttons. For many Christians, and now for me, these days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday are set aside as a time for reflection and self-examination, a time to acknowledge our sins, repent, and seek forgiveness.  The season is a time to come clean with God.

Have you tried to wash your hands of responsibility like Pilate?  Have you denied Jesus like Simon Peter?  Have you betrayed the Lord like Judas? The cleansing of Lent is not only about hands, mouths, and feet. The purging we need is the deep, inner cleansing of our hearts.

King David phrased it well,

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
According to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation. (Psalm 51)

Christians affirm that the one who died for our sins offers forgiveness and pardon. If we confess and receive, by faith, his mercy and his grace, our hearts will be clean. That kind of cleansing goes far beyond the reach of Octagon soap.