By Audrey C. Scanlan
I hadn’t been able to bring myself to look. I hadn’t been able to open the door to the screened-in porch, step out to the far corner and look down into the garden bed below, on the side of the house where, just two weeks ago, the tulips were standing about five inches tall out of the ground and in full bud.
I left for a long trip two weeks ago that was taking me to North Carolina, Washington state, and Philadelphia — in that order — and I had ecclesiastical appointments lined up in each place, like pearls on a string: a House of Bishops meeting, an ordination, a conference.
I was pleased that the bulbs I had planted in the garden last fall were doing so well. When we moved into our house just over a year ago, the garden at the side of the house was in poor repair — a rusted gate, overgrown blueberries, and chickweed climbing everywhere — and last fall I spent hours clearing the plot, double digging the beds, and planting more than 200 bulbs for a spring display and cutting garden.
I bid goodbye to my emerging tulips two weeks ago and stepped onto a plane.
And then, I heard, it snowed. A lot.
Our back yard was filled, my husband got stuck in a snowdrift, and it took hours to clear the long driveway.
I hadn’t — until early Friday morning when I’d been home for about 12 hours — been able to look at the garden.
Yeah. About half of the tulips were gone. Bent over at their knees, heavy heads resting on the ground, and some of them completely collapsed, limp and turning yellow.
But some of them (the shorter ones) were not just hanging on but — defiant and proud and full of green-chlorophyll life, ignoring the petticoats of snow and ice at their feet, and still planning to open — at some not-too-distant point when the sun would coax their red and purple and yellow heads into bloom.
I took heart in the hope of these flowers that had weathered the storm and were promising, in the days ahead, some colorful blossoms. And, I was lucky enough to see, in the spent stems of some of the collapsed flowers, “frost flowers” — thin layers of icy ribbon formed from the frozen sap that was drawn by capillary action from the broken stems. These flowers — both the frozen and the hardy — were in a process of transformation that showed the presence of Creator God, and the beauty of God’s earth.
Today — in the center of a long and cold Lent — we are going to celebrate the joy of baptisms, receptions, and confirmations in the parish family of St. Andrew’s.
The gift of this day, in the midst of a solemn and penitential season, is to celebrate, again, the joy of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit, and transforming love of God.
I go to Church — and I am a Christian — because I want to be changed, to be transformed.
This happens for me — this transformation — in big sweeps and in tiny infinitesimal moments of grace. The season of Lent invites us to consider our place in God’s world — as humble elements of God’s creation, as creatures dangerously gifted with choice, as those in need of God’s unconditional love and mercy — and we are called to pay attention to our connectedness to each other, to earth’s other civilizations and creatures — and to the fragile ecosystem that depends on our careful stewardship to preserve it for future generations.
We are small.
God is mighty.
And Lent is a wonderful time to look, again, at who we are — and whose we are.
In that long view, the look at the big picture, we are humbled and, I hope, inspired to shift and change and to accept the responsibility to care for the earth and each other, commissioned by God. The long view, the big picture, is not a snapshot that suspends us in time, but that compels us to move forward — more of a movie than a snapshot — transformed by the One who has made us for the sake of continued glory and promise.
In the smaller moments of grace, I am also transformed:
On Friday a friend of our daughters who loves to cook and entertain wrote about a plan that he has to cook up a mess of great food and take it to the park where he lives in Santa Rosa, California, to feed people who are hungry. This is not the first time he has done this. He calls it the Flavor Train. He doesn’t have a permit or license, he isn’t connected to any association or church or nonprofit organization, he is just one soul with a gift for cooking who sees hungry brothers and sisters in his town and wants to help.
One of our parishes recently started a new service to invite adults with disabilities — intellectual, emotional, and physical — to come to church for a different kind of service that includes storytelling, fellowship, and the Holy Eucharist in a setting that accommodates all sorts of special needs, in an atmosphere of generosity and caring.
Another of our churches in Harrisburg receives clothing donations to give to women who are looking for outfits for job interviews. It is called Queen Esther’s Closet.
These are not new ideas or novel projects — feeding the hungry, welcoming the other, clothing the naked. They are initiatives that extend back to the mission of Jesus, back to the scrolls of the prophets, and to the earliest laws of the Jewish tradition, and they are gestures of caring and loving that are transformational — for those who both receive the gifts and for those who give them.
I come here to be transformed, by acts of service and by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental life that we share.
We think of this morning’s gospel story as one of Jesus’ healing stories: a blind man made to see. At a scholarly level, we understand this story to fit neatly into the evangelist’s plan to catalog the markers of Jesus’ Messiahship in the Book of Signs before moving to the Book of Glory in which the divine Christ is made manifest. The symbolism of a blind man made to see makes us think about our own blindness and how we can, or can’t, see the light of the world.
But I see this story as sacramental and transformational.
The catechism that we all learned in Sunday school tells us that a sacrament consists of outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces. The outward and visible sign, the “stuff” in this story, is nothing more than Jesus’ spit, mixed into a measure of dust, and made into a poultice, applied to the blind man’s eyes.
The grace is not the restored sight, but the trust that the man places in Jesus, his obedience to our Lord’s directions (“Go to the pool of Siloam and wash”) and the co-creative partnership in which the healing takes place — with the man going to wash, and the healing poultice of Jesus’ spit and dust taking effect. The grace is in the movement, the transformation of the man, in the trust, the love, the willingness to participate in this messy and intimate act that effects healing and restores sight.
In a few moments we will renew our baptismal vows. At the later service we will baptize and confirm and receive and reaffirm a great number of willing souls. In both of these events, the call and response of our baptismal covenant and the later sacramental acts, the theological door of transformation is cracked open.
We can choose to peer in beyond the crack to the shining light of the kingdom of God, maybe toeing the door open even wider to get a better look, and we can join in effecting our own transformation with the assent to do things, saying: “I will, with God’s help.”
Just as the man who received his sight was asked by Jesus to participate in his own healing (“Go and wash in the pool of Siloam”) so we are asked to join God in effecting the transformation of the world and the deepening of our own souls, by joining with God in the mission of God.
It is a joyful day, here at St. Andrew’s, even in the midst of Lent, even in a winter where flowers are dumped on, with 18 inches of icy, wet snow.
But God’s grace will deliver flowers — always. Tender, fragile, frost flowers born of brokenness — or full, siren-screaming red, orange, and hot pink blossoms — as joyful and vibrant as the glory of the Kingdom.
Be glad, for in God we have a renewed, restored, and eternal opportunity to be transformed, and in that, there is great resurrection joy.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Audrey C. Scanlan is Bishop of Central Pennsylvania.