By Clint Wilson
A few months back I attended the performance of the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra here at St. George’s, and it was an amazingly rich and beautiful sonic experience. With that said, I must admit that I do not have an extensive background in music, and while I am vaguely familiar with Strauss, Beethoven, and Brahms, I am not schooled in the German Romantics.
And so as the music stretched out, I found myself getting antsy, wanting to check my phone for social-media updates. My mind wandered elsewhere, and yet there in front of me was an amazingly concentrated embodiment of grace — of people creating beauty rooted in the beauty of God himself. I picked up on the irony of my situation, and I began to reflect on this and ask myself this question: “Why am I not enraptured by these movements of grace right now, here in front of me?”
After thinking about it for some time, the music still playing in the background, I determined this:
the problem is not with them — the musicians — the problem is with me. I have not been formed into the rhythms of such music, I don’t fully understand the complexity of the movements, and so I don’t know how to track with it at points, such that my mind wanders toward the vapid — am I missing anything on Facebook? It is not that my imagination is too large, but rather, it is too small.
Lent is a season to ask, “What is truly good? What is truly worth my time?” There is no doubt that what was happening in front of me that night had more integrity, more beauty, was more worth my attention and time, than liking a video of a cat riding on a Roomba vacuum cleaner. You see, beautiful music sabotages the way things are, revolutionizing what we think we know about beauty. The conductor beckons with the crisp call of a violin or a trumpet, saying, “Here I am, draw near, follow me into learning the movements of grace.” Good music in this way is nothing less than a call to revolution, sabotaging our imaginations, our lives, and the world, but sabotaging them with beauty, to undermine our gaze being directed toward lesser objects.
In our Gospel reading this morning, we hear another call of revolution; in Christ we are issued an invitation to have our imaginations and lives enlarged — to choose him over competing interests. On the one hand, there is the way of the fox (“What does the fox say?,” we might ask). The fox says that revolution comes not through having our imaginations oriented toward the good and the true; no, revolution comes from eliminating one’s enemy. And so the Pharisees tell Jesus to leave, warning him that Herod wants to kill him. Jesus sees this for what it is — it is the way of the fox.
But his is a different way, it is the way of the hen — the way of true revolution. The way of the hen is an invitation to choose the good over the expedient, to choose the beautiful over the quick fix.
Jesus knows that in a few weeks on Palm Sunday, people will appear to have chosen the way of the hen, in the Triumphal Entry, when they cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They are gathered around him, after all, like a brood. And yet a few days later their gaze will turn toward the way of the fox, the way of Herod, the way of the quick fix. And so Jesus cries out to his people in Jerusalem to be gathered together under his wings, yet they will not come. He is calling them to a revolution of grace, but they write him off as being concerned with animal husbandry.
But to be clear, this is revolution — and Jesus is sending out a call to arms; the same arms that will be spread out on the hard wood of the cross for the sake of the world. For this reason, Paul uses challenging language, saying that there are “enemies of the cross of Christ.” Clearly, Paul is serious here, as serious as a loving hen. He states that he writes “even now with tears,” hoping his readers will choose the good and the true over the easy.
C.S. Lewis would echo this seriousness of this revolution, writing: “Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
The way of the hen is the way of sabotage, the way of revolution, if we have eyes to see. Like truly beautiful music, the kingdom of God sabotages our imaginations, pulling them out of lesser loves to the source of love — to the God who longs to gather us. There are few who have summed up the revolutionary nature of the kingdom as well as that deep spiritual counselor, that sage of musical genius, Alice Cooper. I’m being somewhat facetious here, but listen to what Alice Cooper said about the kingdom of God:
“Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.”
We think of revolution as big acts, but in fact, like music, it can be as small as strumming a violin. In fact, in the kingdom of God a small thing is no small thing at all! Just before our Gospel reading for this morning we read of this truth in the parables of Jesus. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; it is like leaven working its way through flour; it is like a narrow door, easily walked by in search for a grand entrance. In the kingdom of God a small thing is no small thing! And therefore Jesus is constantly calling us to be attentive, to see his presence in the small things — a cool glass of tea on a summer day, the smell of rain moving in, an unexpected note or call from a friend.
With that said, Lent also gives us the opportunity to see how we are distracted by “small things” from the true, the good, the beautiful — from God. To ask how we’ve turned our gaze toward things of lesser being and greatness, as if they are ends in themselves, Paul warns of those for whom this is a way of life, saying: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”
Lent is a time to assess and to ask, are we following in the way of the fox, while the hen is simply waiting to gather us into his arms? He beckons like a symphony conductor, longing to teach the rhythms of grace, to allow our imaginations to be washed over by the thickness and beauty of his composition. In a world preoccupied with control, power, votes, and more, we would do well to turn our gaze to the gracious movements of the gospel so embodied in Jesus, whose arms are open even now to embrace us in his love.
The Rev. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church, Harrods Creek, Kentucky.