Pentecost!

 

“… they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house… Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

We have a challenge imagining this moment. Because our culture emphasizes the particularity of personal experience and our differences, rather than what is shared between us. We hear talk about diversity and inclusion, which might reflect a positive regard for community. But it may also reflect an assumption that, apart from our efforts to bring people together, we are separate and disconnected. We hear that, on the day of Pentecost, some people in that room dramatically experienced God’s power. Yet, we may be surprised to hear that all of them did, together!

This may be because we don’t appreciate how community is vital to individual human flourishing. We often want freedom for ourselves without personal accountability to others. And, we desire private opportunities without public responsibilities. Being in community with other people may seem occasionally beneficial, especially when it is on our terms. But we tend not to see it as essential to our lives.

Evangelical Christians rightly emphasize a personal relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And many in the broader Catholic tradition rightly point to how we grow in our relationship with God through community. So, we may think of this as an either/or choice. Yet, the New Testament treats our relationship with God as both personal and communal. Scripture encourages us to see how God is at work nurturing the lives of particular persons as well as transforming the health of whole communities.

We have lost at least one insight by moving from the King James translation to modern versions of the Bible. It centers on the difference between “ye” and “you.” Except in the American South, in modern American English, we don’t distinguish between you, plural, and you, singular. And so, when Jesus says, in the King James version of Mt. 5:48, “be ye perfect,” the contemporary NRSV translation has it as simply, “be perfect…” (meaning whole or complete). In other words, “you, be perfect!’ A modern ‘Southern’ translation would say, “y’all be perfect,” making clear that Jesus is not just speaking to individuals.

This can help us notice a paradox. We know how Episcopalians and other mainline Protestant Christians are sometimes uncomfortable when our brothers and sisters in Christ talk about ‘accepting Jesus as our personal savior.’ And yet, many of us along with other ‘mainline Christians’ assume that religion is always a personal and private matter. In other words, both evangelical and non-evangelical Christians often privilege the same assumption, that our faith is largely private, even if we don’t speak about it differently from each other.

All this is important as we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. Just like the feast of the Resurrection, Pentecost is first about God’s missional community before it is about the experience of individual members.

 

The image above is Bonnie Van Voorst’s painting, Pentecost. This post is based on my homily for Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

 

Bonnie Van Voorst offers these thoughts regarding her evocative painting, Pentecost:

“At the bottom of the painting, blues, browns, and greens represent humanity. Above, blue, gold, and red symbolize the Trinity–blue for Christ’s immanence, gold for the Father’s transcendence, and red for the work of the Holy Spirit. “And the Father, as he had promised, gave [Jesus] the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today.” (Acts 2:33) The red descends to earth, settling on God’s people as they are filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Her painting has the evocative quality of many of those by Makoto Fujimura.

 

The Beauty of a Map and a Compass

 

 

Two college students drive into the mountains for a weekend hiking trip. Perhaps because they were up late writing term papers the night before, both of them are tired. During the long afternoon drive, even cups of coffee fail to keep them fully alert. As the road winds in and out of canyons, rising rock walls deflect the low sun and create deep shadows. Coming around one particularly sharp turn in a switch-back, the SUV skids on gravel, and the vehicle veers off the road. Down an embankment they slide, and slam into a tree. Suddenly everything is white and dusty – the airbags have exploded, saving them from serious injury.

Now they have a real problem. They are in a remote area where cell phones don’t work; the SUV is ruined; and it’s getting dark. Of course, they could just stay where they are, surviving on their packed food and water, and could sleep in what’s left of their vehicle. But neither of them wants to do that. The alternative is to walk out, and try to find a way back to a main road. Aside from food and bottled water they stuff into their day-packs, they have two things that can help them. They have an accurate map, and a working compass, the right tools for them to hike out safely.

But this is where things go from bad to worse. In this moment, each of them has a strong idea about the right way out of this remote place. The problem is, they do not agree about the way forward. Being tired and stressed, and having contrasting personalities, they respond to their situation in very different ways. As a result, they head off in separate directions, one with the map, the other holding the compass.

Initially, this seems like a sensible solution for two people who disagree about their predicament. But the decision proves near-fatal for both of them. Of course, a good map and a working compass are valuable in a situation like this. But, paradoxically, neither tool is of real use without the other. This is why: A good map shows where everything is, including ways in and out of the area. But it does not tell you where you should go. Whereas a working compass always points to magnetic north, and therefore provides direction. But it won’t tell you where you are.

Most of all, refusing collaboration with the other person reading the map or holding the compass diminishes each of their prospects. For both of them are likely to remain lost while, on their own, trying to interpret what can be learned from a map or a compass.

At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples something like a map, a map formed by the memory of his sayings and his works. He who is The Way, gives them a map of The Way. This map reminds them of their relationship with him, and of his relationship with what God has been doing through both him and them. Their challenge is to connect this map of his sayings and works, with the unfamiliar terrain of the new world around them.

But as he has promised, Jesus also gives his disciples something like a compass, which is the guiding Holy Spirit, who always points in the same unwavering and godly direction. Like a compass, the Holy Spirit will help them follow a straight path. But, they still need to know The Way on which they are to head, and the route they need to follow.

And so, like them, we need to rely upon the teaching Scriptures, as well as upon the guiding Holy Spirit, in order to find our way forward in life. For Jesus has given us two intertwined and inseparable gifts that come together as one: this is ‘the Scripture-shaped Tradition of Spirit-guided reasoning.’

 

The images above are James Tissot’s paintings, The Last Sermon of our Lord, and The Last Supper. This post is based on my homily for Easter 6, May 26, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Belief Enables Perception

 

In the Temple’s portico of Solomon, Jesus is challenged concerning his identity, whether he is the Messiah. In response, Jesus points to the works that he does in his Father’s name. Clearly, those who question him neither really hear him, nor see who he is.

John, in the book of Revelation, records a series of visions. “I looked,” he says, “and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the Lamb.” John’s vision of the multitude is not as dramatic as some other images in Revelation. But even this relatively tame scene, recorded in chapter 7, can strike us as fantasy. Most of us never see things like John describes. And, as we say, if I don’t see it, I therefore don’t believe it!

But what if? What if invisible and spiritual things are just as real as what we see and touch? One attribute I appreciate about the photographer, Dewitt Jones, is how he turns conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of limiting belief to what we perceive, he challenges us to believe so that we might see. In his view, perception does not enable belief. Instead, belief enables perception. As a photographer, Dewitt Jones articulates a significant spiritual principle.

We might imagine that, in John’s captivity on the prison island of Patmos, the seer of Revelation had ‘private visions’. Denied the freedom to gather for worship with other believers, God may have given him compensatory visions to sustain him in his solitude. Yet, it seems clear that John was a person of deep faith prior to receiving his visions. And his vision of the multitude should sound familiar to us, especially during Eastertide.

Here are some words many of us pray to our Father in this Easter season: “Fountain of life and source of all goodness, you made all things and fill them with your blessing… Countless throngs of angels stand before you… Joining with them, we sing “Holy, holy, holy…” In this prayer, we are part of the same multitude that John reports having seen in his vision, gathered before the throne of the Lamb. As we join the community he sees, we share their praise and thanksgiving.

Even more to the point, notice what we sing about: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven… and earth… are full of your glory.” I have always loved what those words suggest ~ heaven, and earth, are full of God’s glory! The world is filled with wonder, grace and blessing!

In our Eucharist, we say what we believe. And our believing is then key to our seeing. In the same prayer, we also say, “we acclaim you, holy Lord… Your mighty works reveal your wisdom and love.” In other words, whether we perceive it or not, God’s creative handiwork all around us reveals God’s wisdom and love. Grace inhabits Creation. Because God’s handiwork is revelatory, it’s possible for us to see more than we do now. Not only did the Creator make all things and fill them with divine blessing, God created all things, including us, to rejoice in the splendor of God’s own radiance. When we perceive this blessing within ourselves, in each other, and in all that surrounds us, we then give voice to every creature under heaven, as we offer our gifts of bread and wine.

 

The image above is James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Walks in the Portico of Solomon. This post is based on my homily for Easter 4, May 12, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Divine Energy

 

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said this a few years ago: “I sometimes feel that… our theology has lost that extraordinarily vivid… sense of the world penetrated by divine energy…” Now, why would those words capture our attention? Why are they compelling? It’s because they speak to something for which we hunger… and something we seek in our lives, whether consciously or not.

John tells us that, “afterward, Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee,” also known by the Roman name, Lake Tiberius. As we discern from hearing this story, Jesus appears before a group of people who have forgotten, or who perhaps despair of, this experience of divine energy. It will help us seek greater clarity about John’s story to ask a question: why would anyone, who had known and remembered Jesus in his earthly ministry, and who had then seen him after his resurrection, seem to forget all that came before? Because we remember all kinds of things, and we tend to remember things we have known longest. What Peter and at least three other disciples had known longest was fishing.

The fruit of their decision to return to their old life is beautifully captured in Tissot’s painting. Let’s remember how, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he had called them from fishing in the lake at night to fishing for people during the day. But now, they have gone back to dropping nets for fish in the sea at night. This may be deeply symbolic, especially in John’s Gospel, where the contrast between light and darkness is so significant. The disciples are looking for comfort from what they had before, out there on the lake at night. At the end of that night, Jesus appears to them on the shore. Along with the growing light, he reveals himself at the dawn of a new day.

Still unrecognized, he calls out to them, and puts them in the position of having to admit the fruitlessness of their own endeavor to go back to what was before. For he is present now. He beckons them to attend to what through him they still have ~ and to what they will still have as they live forward.

Tissot’s depiction of Jesus at this moment says it all. The Lord’s posture in the painting communicates an invitation to return. With his hands, he says, “Come ~ return to me!” And, just as he once before shared bread and fish with them near this same place, he invites them to partake of these things once again. Whereas their own efforts to fish have yielded nothing, from him and through him they receive gifts of abundance. And from this abundance, he invites them to make an offering.

Many of these details in John’s story, and as depicted by Tissot, should ‘speak’ to us. For, when we feel challenged by our own experience of the apparent absence of our Risen Lord, we so often do what the disciples did ~ we go back. We go back to what was for us the ever-compelling ‘known and familiar…’ precisely because we are always more comfortable with what what we know, and with what is familiar. That is why we are so often in storm-tossed boats, on uncertain seas, with no idea of where we are going.

But then once again, there he is… saying “Come… come back!’

 

The image above is James Tissot’s painting, Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberius. This post is based on my homily for Easter 3, May 5, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of His Continuing Presence

 

The most well-known painting of ‘Doubting’ Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Jesus may be the one by Caravaggio. And yet, paintings like his are misleading, as is referring to Thomas as ‘the doubter.’ Why? Because paintings and labels like these lead us to overlook or misperceive some very important details within John’s Gospel story. Rembrandt’s painting of the event (above) helps us notice the difference.

As John tells it, we first find ten of the disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear. Consider how, during Jesus’ ministry with them, he had more than once told them to fear not. And at the Last Supper, he had given them ‘his peace.’ Yet, rather than remember what Jesus had shared with them, as well as his miracles, all of them have succumbed to fear. Even though Mary Magdalene that morning had already told them that she had seen the Lord. How can these details be squared with any other description than that the ten behind locked doors are doubting, as well?

Second, observe how John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ initial appearance to the ten, when he finds them fearful and doubting. At first, they do not recognize him. It is only after Jesus shows them his hands and his side that they then recognize him, and rejoice at his presence. When they see him, then they believe, and not before. So, once again, Jesus leaves them with his peace. And now, he gives them his Spirit.

Notice what the ten say to Thomas when he then arrives: “We have seen the Lord” ~ the very same witness Mary had earlier offered to them without having had much effect. Thomas naturally replies by saying something like this: ‘Look, I haven’t see him, like you guys just did— and so, just like you, I won’t be able to believe until I see him, either.” Thomas’ statement to them therefore does not need to be heard as him setting the conditions for his belief. It may simply be a practical prediction of fact.

We need to be equally perceptive about John’s description of Jesus’ later visit to that same locked room. It is a week later when Jesus returns to the eleven, among whom Thomas is present. It is vital to notice what Jesus says to Thomas. It’s even more important to observe how John describes Thomas’ response. Jesus invites Thomas to touch him and to believe. But the Gospel does not say that Thomas has any physical contact with Jesus. It does not tell us that he reaches out, or that he makes an effort to touch Jesus. Instead, and just as Jesus gives him credit for doing, he sees, and then he believes. Just like the prior experience of the other ten!

Rembrandt’s image, like the painting by Carl Bloch, is faithful both to what John tells us, and to what he does not. Observing this, we should refer to this story in John’s Gospel in a different way ~ ‘the doubting disciples, and how they all came to believe.’

 

The above image is of Rembrandt’s (I think mis-titled) painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. This post is based on my homily for Easter 2, April 28, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Through the Waters of Death…

 

 

 

 

The fire at Notre Dame during Holy Week, and the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, led many of us to be mindful about church buildings and their role in our faith lives.

It’s helpful to notice what many of our churches have in common with Notre Dame, as different as they may actually be. Both that medieval cathedral, and many modern-era churches, are built upon a cross-shaped floor plan. Some contemporary faith communities are moving away from this ancient pattern ~ and from the insight that we have a real and felt connection with the places where we worship, and not only with the people with whom we pray. And yet, as sacramental people, it is through the tangible that we connect with the intangible.

We know that in Baptism we become part of the crucified and risen Body of Christ. This is especially evident when a Baptism occurs on a great feast like Easter, with a church full of the Lord’s members. Yet, the moment is all the more meaningful when the building in which we are baptized reflects the crucified Body of Christ. We are grafted into the Body of Christ as we are baptized into his death and resurrection. And this happens in a sacramental rite that calls us to live a cross-shaped life.

And so, every cruciform-shaped church should remind us of Good Friday and of Easter ~ of both our Lord’s Cross and his Resurrection. Our churches are ‘body-shaped,’ because the Church itself is a crucified and risen ‘Body.’ Therefore, like many other medieval cathedrals, Notre Dame in Paris is so much more than a building. It is first an offering of great love for our Lord as well as for his physical, earthly mother. As an embodiment of faith and love, Notre Dame like our own parishes is a tangible expression of the Body of Christ, in its many forms. We are therefore embraced by the Body of Christ in Baptism, in several mystically wonderful ways. Especially when Christ embraces us in Baptism through his Body, the Church, in a building shaped like his crucified body.

We can set this spiritual awareness in a wider context. We can connect it with some familiar and pivotal biblical stories, within the wider sweep of Salvation History. Here is a simple phrase with which to remember the heart of the mystery of our redemption. “Through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God.” The phrase applies to Noah’s ark journey, to Israel’s Red Sea crossing, as well as to how Israel’s Jordan river crossing and Jesus’ own Baptism recapitulated these great events.

This mystical awareness is wonderfully expressed in Peter Koenig’s beautiful painting, Christ as the Second Moses, along with its side-panels, shown above. Not only is it a painting about Christ, his Cross and Resurrection; it is also a painting about us. (Notice how, along with Adam and Eve, we are depicted in the shadows behind the Christ figure.) For as we join Christ through baptismal waters representing his death, we join him in his Risen covenant life in God. This is the heart of the Easter mystery.

 

The above painting is Peter Koenig’s, Christ as the Second Moses, also known as The Rainbow Resurrection (used by permission of the artist). This post is based on my homily for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Body We Have Embraced

 

As soon as I heard the news on Monday, like everyone else I went to the internet. The live video of the flames rising up from the roof of Notre Dame in Paris was deeply disturbing. Like so many others, I felt an immediate grief. How touching that we would feel wounded when hearing about and seeing the wounding of a great and beautiful cathedral. And it is no accident that we should have felt this way.

For like so many other medieval cathedrals, Notre Dame de Paris is so much more than a building. It is first an offering of great love for our Lord and his physical, earthly mother. It is also an embodiment of faith, a tangible expression of the Body of Christ. This is particularly evident in the way that its floor plan is shaped in homage to his crucified Body. The cathedral therefore represents an ‘incarnation’ of what the book of Revelation calls the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. For he is the One through whom all things were made, and the One through whom all things will come to their End… whether their End be their termination, or their fulfillment and completion.

Believers through the centuries who worship the Incarnate Lord have something in common. It is both true of his followers at the time of his crucifixion, two thousand years ago, and true of us today. As believers, we are never ambivalent about harm brought to the Lord’s Body, and to living symbols of his Body — both harm to the structures in which we worship, and harm to the ‘living temples’ formed by us, his embodied members.

For the Lord, for his followers, and for all members of his Body, death is always a gateway to new life. And, for the cathedral of Notre Dame, death to one phase in the life of this magnificent building will surely become a gateway to a new life ~ both for it, and for her people.

It is precisely with this awareness, I believe, that Peter Koenig has painted, and offered for our spiritual edification, his glorious image of Christ as the Second Moses. Peter Koenig’s vision is similar to that of the original builders of Notre Dame, the same mystical vision permeating John’ Gospel and John’s understanding of Jesus’ Incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

We should notice this: The body that the Son of God embraced, and with which he became one, has become the Body we have embraced, and with which we have become one. The Body of his transformation has become the Body of our own transformation. His death was a critical ‘hinge point’ ~ a hinge point in his and our process of transformation. And so, though our worship on Good Friday liturgy is ostensibly focused on the death of Jesus, it is also profoundly about the renewed lives of others, like us.

At the beginning of Lent, we reminded ourselves of a practical truth. Our journey toward knowing the fire of the Holy Spirit more truly, begins with physical ashes. A sign of death and destruction like ashes, or the Holy Cross, can help us see new life beyond it. May we, like our brothers and sisters in Paris, always remember this.

 

The above painting is Peter Koenig’s, Christ as the Second Moses, also known as The Rainbow Resurrection (used by permission of the artist). This post is based on my homily for Good Friday, April 19, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Entering the Beautiful City

 

In Luke’s Gospel, we follow Jesus up the hillside climb to the small village of Bethany. There, he enjoys the gracious hospitality of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus whom Jesus had recently raised from the dead. This location on the Mount of Olives is significant. Based on certain biblical prophecies, some believers expect that the Messiah would return from the East. The Holy One would descend into Jerusalem from the area of Bethany, from near the Garden of Gethsemane.

These aren’t just trivial details from Bible history, but instead are deeply meaningful symbols. Knowing more about them enriches our observance of this week. They help us see how a relatively private and anonymous dinner up at Bethany, earlier in the week, providentially sets the stage for this week… and for the events that we commemorate in our Holy Week liturgies.

First, Jesus humbly goes up to Bethany on the Mount of Olives. And then… with the same spirit he comes down into Jerusalem. But not that we would readily know this. For the Gospels, with their descriptions of exuberant crowds praising Jesus during his palm-procession, create a different impression. As do many artistic representations of the event, like that of James Tissot, pictured above. We will want to notice this: as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he does not put himself forward into a royal role even though so many others want him to. In the process, he does not involve himself in calculating reactions; he does not speculate about outcomes; he does not deal with probabilities. Instead, Jesus simply accepts God’s holy Providence. And so, he walks or rides toward what has been planned for him rather than toward what he might have planned for himself. Despite whatever recognition Jesus may already have received, this is the decisive moment, for him ~ and for us. In this Gospel moment, he realizes his true vocation.

The most vivid —and yet also very subtle— sign of this is how he embarks on his procession toward what will be his ‘coronation.’ The expected Messiah, coming as promised from the East, and down from the Mount of Olives, descends the slope riding upon a donkey. That is, he rides upon a ‘beast of burden,’ and markedly not upon a ‘war-horse.’ For the Prince of Peace returns to God’s holy Temple in humility rather than with the threat of aggression.

Despite this, conflict and violence await the Prince of Peace. At first, some of it seems to be of his own making, for he soon engages in the ‘Cleansing of the Temple.’ As we have noticed before, this act could easily be interpreted as an act of violence, and one that is perpetrated by him. Nevertheless, just as he did in his descent into the Holy City on a donkey, he honors his vocation by being faithful to Providence. And he acts as the One who will bring peace ~ but the kind of peace that the world does not give, and cannot give.

Given all this, a particular question should occur to us: We see the Prince of Peace enter the City mounted not on a warhorse but on a lowly donkey. So why, then, would his arrival provoke conflict and violence? His immediate and dramatic act of overturning the tables of the money changers, and his scattering of sacrificial animals for sale in Temple, were hardly enough to instigate a plot to do away with him. Instead, it was surely what these acts appeared to represent. Because they caused fears and distrust to well up into hostile action. For what we know now, and what some at that time could intuit, is a central truth ~ a truth as pertinent to us as it was to those who ruled Jerusalem in those troubled days. There can only be one true King of Israel. There can only be one Lord. And so, all of us must choose. Or, we must be responsible for avoiding the choice… the choice regarding whom we recognize as King and Lord. In Israelite history, there is only one correct answer to this question ~ Adonai ~Y*hw*h, the God of their history and ours.

 

The above painting is James Tissot’s, Procession on the Mount of Olives. This post is based on my homily for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

A Beautifully Hospitable Dinner at Bethany

 

It is evening in Bethany, the little village near the top of the Mount of Olives. A dinner party has been planned at a small and modest home inhabited by Mary, Martha and Lazarus. With their extended invitation the three siblings plan to honor a special guest. Since the three are living together, some folks assume they don’t have much money. This fits well with the highly symbolic world of their Scriptures because Bethany, in Hebrew, means house of the poor.

Jesus is a close friend to these three siblings, each one so different from the others. They embrace him with a love that helps us see what godly friendship is all about. Jesus and the siblings are especially close now. After seeing his loving tears at Lazarus’ tomb, and how he brought their brother back to life, he is dear to the two sisters’ hearts.

While evening brings quiet to the village, those gathered for the meal sense a wariness amongst their neighbors. Jesus’ arrival in nearby Jerusalem has evoked tension and conflict. Despite this, his beloved friends appear not to realize that Lazarus’ resuscitation has prompted a plan to kill Jesus. Just before describing this supper, John tells us that the chief priests and the Pharisees have ordered anyone knowing where Jesus was to report it, so they might arrest him. Tension radiates outward from the Temple, throughout the city. But at the top of the hill across the Kidron Valley, in the soft light of small oil lamps, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed to dinner. Despite having a small household with limited means, their hosts have planned a festive and joyous evening.

With spiritual insight, James Tissot has captured the circumstances of Jesus’ slow walk to the dinner. The Eastern Wall of the Temple is at Jesus’ back ~ the very place where he will enter in a few days on what we now call ‘Palm Sunday.’ He is ascending the Mount of Olives, from which it was believed the Messiah would someday come and enter into the Temple. In a very subtle way, Tissot visually hints at the storms hovering over the Holy City as the Passover approaches. Yet, at this moment, Jesus walks quietly toward what he surely wishes will be a peaceful evening ~ and for a pause from the stress and pressure that his coming to Jerusalem has aroused.

At this dinner, Mary models a beautifully extravagant idea. It is to offer all that we are, and all that we have to God’s self-revelation in Jesus! And, for the sake of God’s kingdom! To make such an offering is way beyond the usual and reasonable bounds within which we constrain ourselves. And far beyond the usual prudent limits by which we measure things in terms of cost. But as we see in Mary’s example, there is usually only one thing that moves us to respond in this way: joy! Sheer joy grabs her heart and moves her to give her all. Mary gives her all to him, and to the new life that he is even now unleashing in this world.

 

The above painting is James Tissot’s, Jesus Goes in the Evening to Bethany. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, April 7, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Our Return

 

I share with you an unusual set of images from James Tissot. They represent his transition from a French and English society painter to being a visual communicator of the Gospel. They are three of his four paintings depicting The Prodigal Son in Modern Life. How beautifully he evokes the son’s presumptuous ascendancy over his father’s legacy. Then, the son’s foolhardy journey into adventures of his own making. And, third, his return home to his father’s good favor. One key to the subtlety of these three paintings is to notice the older brother in the first painting where he is sitting by his wife. He is musing about distant possibilities for himself, just as his more impetuous brother is beginning to act upon a similarly fanciful vision. In the third image, we observe the stoic and prideful older brother standing by his wife, reluctant to approach and embrace his just-returned sibling.

As Tissot show us, wise readers notice in Luke’s story that we hear about two lost sons, not just the one who went to a far-off land. The older brother couldn’t recognize how his own life was gifted, having entered into an abundant legacy that had also become his. This may be true for us, as well. So, we need to be thoughtful about how we refer to this un-named parable. To say it’s about the prodigal son overlooks how it’s also about the presumptuous older brother, as well as about the ever-loving father.

When we focus on the younger son in Jesus’ parable, we become more sensitive to how it may help check us from wandering away from God and from God’s ways. For we find in this story an account of what it’s like to come to our senses, in circumstances that could kill us spiritually and physically. It speaks about what it means to ‘return home.’ But as dramatic as experiences like this can be, they stand out because they are occasional or singular.

Seeing this parable as also about the grumbling older brother helps us notice how significant it is for other times in our lives. This is not just a Gospel about looking back to what was, and has been. This is a Gospel about living forward, toward the future God is even now preparing for us.

We are called to the feast! We gather on Sundays for the same feast about which we hear in Luke’s Gospel parable. Our Eucharist is our celebration of the return of lost ones, both ourselves and others. Henri Nouwen’s great insight about this Gospel passage, and Rembrandt’s painting of it, is this: having once been the younger brother who has experienced the grace of returning home, we are all called to become the father in the story! In other words, we are called to become people who receive others, embracing those who return some time after we do. Let us eat and celebrate! For like us, our later-returning brothers and sisters were dead and are alive again; like us, they were lost, and now are found!

 

The above paintings are from James Tissot’s, The Prodigal Son in Modern Life, three of his four paintings depicting Jesus’ famous parable in Luke 15. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, March 31, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.