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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday......

is the day when Catholics and many Protestants identify as the beginning of he Lenten Season. It is the "first fast" in a time of fasting and meditation, and we are bound to strengthen our souls against worldly desires. Today we are "marked" with ashes made from blessed palm. As the priest puts the ashes on our forehead in the sign of the cross, he says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."

    Is all this supposed to be depressing, or some Puritanical demonstration of killjoy religiosity? No, of course not. We're as fun-loving as anyone, and woe be the heathen who claims Christians don't know how to party! But to everything there is a season, and this is the season when we call to mind Christ's own suffering during his 40-day-long fast in the desert, when he was tempted by the devil with power, fame, riches, and even the simple necessity of bread. But Satan makes everything seem simple.

    It may sound strange, but I find the Lent/Easter Seasons uniquely fulfilling in a way that Advent/Christmas does not achieve. But are beautiful, don't get me wrong, but the former has a depth found in its innate paradox that is intrinsically intertwined with the human experience. It's literally "a matter of life and death." There is so much fear involved in the subject of dying, it seems it is only right to ponder on it, and that which comes after it. And how better to do that than through prayer and penance? Really, it is all a celebration of "the real us", given to us by God in the form of our souls and the Free Will we are given.

    We are more than flesh and bones and stomachs and brains. We know that we are, and that proves that we are. It is natural law. It is part of our very nature. But it is a wounded nature, all too often tending towards our base desires, not just of the body but also of the mind. We are given the will and the grace to control both. Christ broke the back of sin and death when he himself became the scapegoat for us and died for to ransom us. It was a surprise ending that his death should bring new life. And that's just the sort of glorious paradox that makes perfect sense. As Chesteron said in his famous Ballad of the White Horse, "By God's death, the stars shall shine/And small apples grow."

    And so we share in the tiniest inkling of that sacrifice through our prayers and penance. In this, we also become interconnected with the Church in its fullness, across the distances of time and place. I find it particularly intriguing when I stumble across passages from history that deal with people facing death and looking to Heaven for solace. It's often quite unexpected, and I feel an increased attachment to those persons from the past with whom I share the same hope that is grounded in Christ.

    One interesting example is Bishop Bonaventure Giffard, an underground Catholic prelate in England, wrote a letter to James Radcliffe, Lord Derwentwater, a young nobleman who was sentenced to death for taking part in the Jacobite uprising of 1715. In the letter, the bishop compared Derwentwater's coming execution to the passion of Christ:

    "His (Christ’s) fear merited all the courage which appeared in the martyrs, and will obtain for you all that firmness and fortitude of mind which will accompany you to the scaffold. His sadness will raise a holy grief and sorrow in you for your sins, and at the same time settle a most solid joy in your heart. In fine, all the circumstances of His most bitter agony will sweeten to you all that is most terrible in death.....God to your savior in his dolorous garden; kneel down with Him; join in prayers with Him, and shutting your heart up with His, pronounce with Him these great words: - Father, Thy will be done!....(These are) the poor thoughts of me, that truly loved you; who is continually with you in his prayers, and who hopes to join with you for all eternity in a canticle of praise to the infinite mercies of our great God."

    Derwentwater was execution on February 24, 1716, and the crowd was moved to tears to watch him die.  He was beloved for his charming manners and generosity to all, and his loss was lamented in his native Northumberland for years to come. His final speech on the gallows runs as follows:

    “Being in a few minutes to appear before the tribunal of God, where, though most unworthy, I hope to find mercy, which I have not found from men now in power, I have endeavoured to make my peace with His Divine Majesty by most humbly begging pardon for all the sins of my life; and I doubt not of a merciful forgiveness through the merits of the passion and death of my Saviour Jesus Christ, for which end I earnestly desire the prayers of all good Christians.

    After this, I am to ask pardon of those whom I might have scandalized by pleading guilty at my trial. Such as were permitted to come to me, told me, that having been undeniably in arms, pleading guilty was but the consequence of having submitted to mercy; and many arguments were used to prove there was nothing of moment in so doing, among others, the universal practice of signing leases, whereof the preambles run in the name of the person in possession.

    But I am sensible that in this I have made bold with my loyalty, having never owned any other but King James the Third for my rightful and lawful sovereign; him I had an inclination to serve from my infancy, and was moved thereto by a natural love I had to his person, knowing him to be capable of making his people happy; and though he had been of a different religion from mine, I should have done for him all that lay in my power, as my ancestors have done for his predecessors, being thereto bound by the laws of God and man.

    Wherefore, if in this affair I have acted rashly, it ought not affect the innocent; I intended to wrong nobody, but to serve my king and country, and that without self-interest, hoping by the example I gave to have induced others to their duty; and God, who sees the secrets of my heart, knows I speak truth. Some means have been proposed to me for saving my life, which I looked upon as inconsistent with honour and conscience, and therefore I rejected them; for, with God's assistance, I shall prefer any death to the doing a base unworthy action.

    I only wish now, that the laying down my life might contribute to the service of my king and country, and the re-establishment of the ancient and fundamental constitution of these kingdoms, without which, no lasting peace or true happiness can attend them; then I should indeed part with life even with pleasure. As it is, I can only pray that these blessings may be bestowed upon my dear country; and since I can do no more, I beseech God to accept of my life as a small sacrifice towards it.

    I die a Roman Catholic; I am in perfect charity with all the world, I thank God for it, even with those of the present government who are most instrumental in my death. I freely forgive such as ungenerously reported false things of me; and I hope to be forgiven the trespasses of my youth, by the Father of infinite mercy, into whose hand I commend my soul.”

    Another interesting example is Duncan Forbes, the Lord President in the Scottish Highlands for the Hanoverian government, who died on December 10, 1747. After a life of serving his cause during repeated rebellions and advocating that justice should be meted out instead of vengeance, he lived out his final days impoverished, unpaid for his services to his country. His son recorded:

   “My father entered into the everlasting life of God, trusting, hoping, and believing through the blood of Christ, eternal life and happiness. When I first saw my father upon the bed of death, his blessing and prayer to me was:
    ‘My dear John, you have just come in time to see me die. May the great God of heaven and earth bless and preserver you! You have come to a very poor fortune; partly through my own extravagance, and partly through the oppression of power. I am sure you will forgive me, because what I did was with a good intention. I know you to be an honest-hearted lad. Andrew Mitchell loves you affectionately; he will advise you, and do what he can for you.

    I depend upon Scroope, too, which you may let him know. I will advise you never to think of coming into parliament. I left some notes with the two William Forbses in case I had not seen you. They are two affectionate lads, and will be able to help you in some affairs better thank you would have done yourself. John Hossack will help you in your affairs in the north. My hearts bleeds for poor John Steel; I recommended him to you.  

    When I was in the north I paid some considerably large sums that I never dreamed of before, towards defraying the charges occasioned by the rebellion. There is but one thing I repent me of in my whole life --- not to have taken better care of you. I trust in the blood of Christ. Be always religious, fear and love God. You may go, you can be of no service to me here.’”

      Last but not least, I must refer to one of my personal favorites, Sgt. Roger Lamb, British veteran of the American Revolution, who concluded the narrative of his wartime experience in Occurrences during the Late American War with the following excerpt:

    “When I reflect on the hardships which I endured, the dangers which I escaped from my first setting out from Gloucester, after our army was taken prisoners, in a march of perhaps not less than one thousand miles, through a wilderness interspersed with swamps, I felt (and senseless must I be if I did not feel it) a degree of thankfulness to that Providence, who, not only preserved my life in several hard fought battles, skirmishes, etc., but also guided my footsteps through those desert tracks, and brought me in safety once more among my friends. It is true, I can state the fact in the language of the great heathen poet:

‘From the din of war,
Safe I returned without one hostile scar;
Though balls in leaden tempests rained around,
Yet innocent they flew, and guiltless of a wound.’

    But I must acknowledge, as a Christian, (however I may by some persons be charged with enthusiasm for it) that in all these wonderful events of my past life, I see and adore a higher direction – an arm Omnipotent which has been my safeguard; and penetrated with the recollection of which I may truly say – “O God the Lord, the strength of my salvation; Thou hast covered my head in the day of battle.” 

"I trust in the blood of Christ..."

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