God’s Word of Hope

 

Remember God’s call to Moses, through the burning bush. Remember God’s call to Isaiah in the Temple. And remember God’s call to Jeremiah. In each of these encounters, when a divine invitation and word of hope comes to those who would become prophets, they react in a similar way. Each of them responds with fear, just like the reaction we see in Simone Martini’s Annunciation painting of Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel (featured in my prior blog post). Yet, in these call passages we see Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah respond in a second way: each of them is overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness at being called to serve the Lord. For in our hearts and our minds, we as God’s people do not always hear or receive what the Lord intends to be a word of hope as a hopeful message.

During this season of Advent I am once again reflecting on four Annunciation paintings. Here, I invite you to consider Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of the angel’s visitation to Mary, calling her to be a servant in God’s ongoing work of redemption. Observe Mary’s response to the angel and its contrast with Simone Martini’s painting (featured in my prior posting). In Martini’s Annunciation, we see an image portraying fear – Mary clutching the top of her cloak turning away from the angel and yet not able to take her eyes off the divine messenger. In Rossetti’s Annunciation (above), we see Mary looking in a different direction. Her gaze is off into the middle distance, and we can tell that she is not looking at anything in particular, ‘out there.’ Instead, she is looking within.

When encountering the holiness, righteous and purity of God, we may experience not only fear about change that might lie ahead. Very likely we will also feel a sense of our own unworthiness. Sensing the glory of God, we will become more aware of what fall’s short of God’s glory within us. When the Spirit invites us to experience transformation back into God’s own likeness, we are called to face and then set aside all that stands in the way of this positive change. In the Gospels we learn how God’s Word came through John the Baptizer’s ministry as a call to repent. We hear the same call to turn toward renewal in our own day.

Notice what we see in the angel’s hand. When inviting Mary to bear the Word of God for the sake of the world, the angel holds lilies. Lilies are a sign of the resurrection. We also see the prominent red sash that Mary may have been stitching. It bears an image of the same lilies, along with a vine that may recall the ‘Tree of Jesse’ motif (inspired by Isaiah 11). But here they are set against a red background – a sign of the passion that lies ahead. This suggests the path of suffering which the ‘Son of Man’ must walk so that we might experience the restoration and transformation of our fallen nature in his likeness.

 

The image above is a detail of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, The Annunciation (a painting I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of an Unexpected Invitation

 

Advent is the perfect season for reflecting on how God’s Spirit invites us to go to a new place spiritually for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Since there is no question that this will happen, the only question is how it will happen, and how we will respond when it does.

This is the season when we focus on how God’s Kingdom comes into the world. We look back to the earthly kingdom of Israel, and her difficulty fulfilling her spiritual vocation. We also look back to the promised first coming of the Messiah, who would bring God’s Kingdom into the world with new power. And during Advent, we also look forward, to the Messiah’s return in glory. But here is a crucial fact about the first coming of the Messiah: if there had been no Mary, there would have been no Jesus. In order for God’s great “YES” to us in Jesus to become manifest, Mary had to say “Yes” to God.

God’s call to Mary embodies God’s holiness and righteousness. In our encounter with this, everything in us that is less than godly undergoes judgment. The bright light of God’s glory throws into relief all the dark corners of the world ~ and all the dark corners in our lives. The purity of God shows up all that is less than pure.

Our reaction to this may involve at least one thing: fear! God’s call comes to us as Good News. And yet, we experience God’s call for us to become a new person and do new things as a fearful invitation. For me, it has involved a call to consider moving away from one beloved church and congregation to what I could only hope would be another. For both you and for me, it may be a call to go and speak to someone with whom we have a disagreement, or to reconcile with someone whom we have failed to forgive. When God calls us to new life, by inviting us to do something like this, our first reaction is often fear. We think of all the things we are afraid might happen: like losing the security of a familiar home and community; or setting aside our own pride and sense of right; and opening ourselves in vulnerability to being hurt by another person.

In this detail of Simone Martini’s Annunciation, we see what may have been Mary’s first response to the presence of the holy Angel. Gabriel comes to her sharing God’s good news about the child she will bear, who will bring salvation for the world. And Mary draws back in fear at this message, frightened about what it might mean for her and her life. We all know the end of the story, how it all turned out for good. But in that moment, as it often is for us, God’s call probably had a frightening aspect to it. Because a change to something always means a change from something else, from where we started.

Martini’s painting reminds me of spiritual advice I received years ago ~ spiritual advice that gave me the courage to leave a tenured faculty position at one of our seminaries and return to parish ministry. The prospect of this change, for which I had a sense of call, was frightening. And the good advice I received was this: when you go toward the heart of your fear in faith, God will meet you there with power.

We know that this is what Mary did. For she moved beyond her reaction to the seeming strangeness of the Angel’s greeting, not knowing what it meant. She was then open to embracing the message and all that it would entail for her ~ and for the world.

 

The image above is a detail of Simone Martini’s painting, The Annunciation (a painting I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 a Fuller Picture

 

Late in Luke’s Gospel, some Sadducees come to Jesus to challenge him with a fanciful question about marriage. As we may remember, their question is premised on an assumption they do not share ~ that is, belief in resurrection.

In his response, Jesus does not really challenge the Sadducees to have ‘right belief.’ As if just believing in the resurrection will make all well. No, Jesus challenges their perception of what is now present among them. Through his words, and even more through his personal presence, he offers them revelation of a more encompassing reality, a doorway to a fuller life already in their midst.

Here is what Jesus says, and embodies for them: our God is the God of the living. Not just of breathing, metabolism and brain function! Our God is the God who brings fullness to life, who brings flourishing in blessedness, and a happiness that transcends all the pleasures of this attractive world.

What a paradox this suggests! Because many of us routinely settle for merely existing. We sacrifice the possibility of something greater by habitually relying on the limited forms of living which are within reach, apparent to our earthly eyes, and alluring to our sensate experience. These can be good things. Yet they cease to be good if they keep us from seeing and wanting more. The world around us bears the imprint of the Creator’s handiwork. Through the special revelation of Scripture, and especially in the Word made Flesh, we see more fully what God would have us see, and not simply what we are drawn to see.

One of the important things revealed Luke’s story is a truth that is embodied in The Book of Common Prayer. Marriage is bound up with God’s purposes for our lives. These Godly purposes change when we get to ‘the other side,’ precisely as our lives become more characterized by eternity, and by our shared experience of transcendent glory.

So, whether we are thinking of marriage or of the broader experience of friendship, whether we are thinking of knowing and loving, or of activities like singing or work, Jesus shows us this: that the reality of these things on the other side will transcend the limited ways we experience them now. This is most true with our knowing and loving, both of which are manifestly incomplete for us. We love many things we do not really know; and we know things that we do not truly love. It is the same with our being and our doing, which are often out of sync. But these aspects of our lives will no longer be separate when all is accomplished in Jesus.

The vital thing is the dynamic element that transforms ordinary things into the extraordinary, and basic living into flourishing. It is this: We need to let what is heavenly shape and change our experience of what is earthly. This is the opposite of letting our engagement with the earthly limit our hope and expectations for all that is heavenly. Jesus reveals fuller life in the Spirit, and gives it to us now. Clinging to what is near and tangible may hinder our openness to what may yet be. At the same time, when we open ourselves to what is made new in him, he loosens our grip on what is near and on what seems important to us now. Jesus is our Daystar. The Daystar from on high broadens the horizon for human life.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, November 10, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 Autumn Glory

 

In Western Michigan, the leaves at this time of year are usually beautiful. On the relatively few sunny days we’ve had, some of the leaves have been striking. But even against a foggy or rainy sky, the bright leaves provide a lovely metaphor. Like a choral concert featuring many voices, the leaves show their individual colors together in a stunning overall performance. I always love the deep reds of the maples. But the brilliant yellows and oranges of the birches, cottonwoods and hickories provide strong complementary support. Since these lively colors among the leaves are less common down south, we always put some in the mail to our kids in Louisiana.

As I think about this fall display, I remember something I heard years ago. We think of the bright colors as suddenly appearing in the autumn. But, apparently, those bright colors in the leaves have been there all along! It’s just that, at this time of year, the predominant green color fades away. When it does, it reveals the other brilliant colors latent in the body of the leaves. Either way, we don’t see the bright colors until autumn. And from the leaves’ first emergence as buds in the spring, we see only suggestions of what will come later. Sometimes the buds show hints of red and yellow. But soon, most of them bear variations of green, some light and pale, and others dark and rich-looking.

We can find a further extension of this metaphor in the form of a reflective contrast. On one hand, we appreciate the leaves at the end of their growing season. Yet, we often have a less-than-poetic view of ourselves as we approach the end of our own ‘growing season.’ Regarding the autumn display of color, people of faith rightly echo words from the Psalms, when we speak of fall leaves as ‘singing out praise’ to the creator. The leaves are doing what they were made to do. They are true to their own nature in each of the four seasons. And they come into their full glory in the fall.

And yet, when we think about ‘the autumn’ of our physically embodied lives, we consider it to be a time of decline and loss rather than one of gain, or as a time for giving glory. Suppose someone asks us to think about examples of people who give glory to God just by being who they are. We are likely to think of young folks in the ‘springtime’ of life, physically fit, professionally accomplished, with lots of time for achievement ahead. But why don’t we perceive the fullness of age as the time when we grow into wholeness, into the beauty of maturity, and when we embody received wisdom and grace? Why is autumn no longer a ready metaphor for when we as human beings come into our own glory?

The gloriously colored leaves falling from the trees at this time of year do not attain their beauty through anything they do. They come into their glory as a result of what happens to them. This follows from how God has made them, and from what God has put into them. This is perhaps the most significant meaning we can find in these leaves coming into their glory at the end of their lives. It gives us a different way to think about how we move into and through the ‘autumn season’ of our lives. For we now share in the beauty of the Communion of Saints not through anything we have done, nor by our strength, but through God’s graceful embrace of our weakness.

This past Sunday -All Saints Sunday- many people across the Church received a new birth through being joined with our Lord’s death and resurrection. They became new buds grafted onto the Tree of Life. In the youngest ones, we can only imagine how —some day— they will reflect Christ’s glory in their maturity. For we don’t yet see how they will become like the brightly colored leaves on autumn trees. But on All Saints, all the newly baptized emerge as flowering buds on the Tree of Life. May we join them in glorifying God through every season of our lives.

 

The image above is of an untitled Coco Treppendahl painting portraying the beauty of autumn leaves. This post is based on my homily for All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 Prayer

 

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem. On the way, he senses the looming adversity it harbors for him and his disciples. To strengthen his followers, he tells them a little story with a simple point. We shouldn’t let the details distract us from Luke’s introduction to it. He plainly states the purpose of Jesus’ story. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Unless we are careful, we are likely to assume that Jesus wants us to see prayer as boiling down to persuasion! But the point of his story is not for us to try to persuade God about the rightness of our needs! The point is for us to be as persevering in prayer as was the woman who kept pestering the unjust judge. We are to persevere in prayer precisely so that God can persuade us about the rightness of God’s will. Jesus commends the example of the woman’s persistence, not her insistence on getting her way. Discerning that God wants us to be attentive and faithful, we then see that our relationship with God is the real issue, not our needs. If even an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will our righteous God vindicate Israel’s faithful, who seek him?

Just as children do with their parents, we usually take our relationship with our Father in heaven for granted. At the same time we are absorbed with our needs and wants. Yet, we can also choose to be intentional about our relationship with God, and trust God’s Providence for our needs. Well, this is hard to do!

Here we can connect with Jacob’s experience, as recorded in Genesis 32. Jacob’s life has been greatly disrupted. He is filled with unease about meeting his brother Esau, whom he has wronged. Jacob worries for himself and his future, about his kids and his possessions. He wrestles with anxiety. During a dark night, he discovers he is wrestling with more than worry – he is wrestling with God! And so, he is also wrestling with himself.

This is the key: wrestling with God is usually the result of resisting God, and of resisting God’s will. Wrestling with God can leave us with the spiritual equivalent of a limp. As with Jacob, this ‘limp’ results from our stubbornness and hard-heartedness. In spite of this, God truly wants everyone to receive divine blessing, whether it’s Jacob and Esau, or all of us. But, sometimes, and maybe even often, we get in the way!

At the very least, as Jacob discovered, prayer is about hanging on to God, no matter what… ~ even while we are asking God questions, and even while we are contending with God’s will for us. It really is ok to tell God we are angry or sad, or disappointed or depressed. And it really is ok to tell God that we blame God for these things! The point is to tell God, instead of telling our friends or Facebook. By asking God, or honestly telling God, we engage with the Spirit’s presence. Then, like Jacob, we are in the best position to receive a divine blessing. It helps us see that prayer has little to do with changing God’s will. Instead, prayer has everything to do with God changing our will. For God always seeks to change our will so that it comes into accord with God’s great love for us.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jacob Wrestles With an Angel. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, October 20, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 Turning Back

 

Ten lepers at the edge of a village call out to Jesus, who is on his way toward Jerusalem. They say what we would say when faced with a hopeless situation. The lepers stand at a distance because they are required to protect others from their ritual ‘un-cleanness’ and disease. With both hope and desperation, they cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Seeing them, Jesus simply says, “Go, and show yourselves to the priests!” The ten then turn, and do what Jesus says. Why? Why do they do that? Just because he told them to? No ~ it’s because they accept and believe what Jesus says.

According to Mosaic Law, only priests could certify that someone was ritually clean and free of disease. The sole reason for the ten to show themselves to the priests would be to present evidence that they were healed! Going to the priests would imply they believed their healing was already happening, if not complete. By turning to go, all ten showed that they believed what Jesus’ word would accomplish. And Luke tells us that as they went, all ten were cleansed.

Imagine being in their place. Surely, having been healed, every one of them was filled with overwhelming joy! James Christensen’s painting, Ten Lepers, captures the moment beautifully. I love how the artist portrays the ten, and especially the one who turns back. Bubbling with excitement about what the priests’ certification would mean for their lives, the ten would have run to be reunited with their families and former homes. All ten would have been filled with thanks and praise for the great gift they had received. We therefore miss the point of this story if we think only one of them, the Samaritan, was thankful.

Listen to how Luke tells it: “One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. And he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” By turning back, he humbly manifests a sign of repentance. Then, by falling down, he embodies a sign of worship. So, this man who turned back wasn’t just thankful in general about being healed. He came back to give particular thanks to the source of his healing. Luke leaves us to imagine his words, which must have been something like, “Praise you, O Lord, for your mighty work in my life!”

Falling down at Jesus’ feet was an act of worship. This is what we do when we bow in humility before God. It’s how we acknowledge our unworthiness, giving thanks for undeserved grace and mercy. The Greek verb Luke uses to describe what this man does at Jesus’ feet, is “eucharisteo”… In other words, he fell down in “Eucharist” at Jesus’ feet ~ where he responds with great thanksgiving!

 

The image above is of James C. Christensen’s painting, Ten Lepers. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, October 13, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 Contrast and Continuity

Luke presents us with a real challenge when he shares with us Jesus’ parable about the dishonest steward (or manager) {See Luke 16:1-13}  If you find yourself asking questions about what Jesus says in this passage you are not alone. Here is the obvious question: How can Jesus commend the bad behavior of a corrupt steward ~ as a good example for people of faith? We have a reading translated from Greek, which was itself probably an earlier translation of Jesus’ words in Aramaic. Therefore, we have to try to put our head into the text, in order to understand it. So… how can ‘the children of this age’ provide a commendable example to ‘the children of light’? Two paintings by Raphael may be able to help us with this ~ paintings you may have seen before.

They are found in a remarkable room in the Vatican Museum, painted about the same time that St. Peter’s Basilica was being built next door. Visitors entering this room face the fresco in the lower image, which looks like the sanctuary of a church with an altar and the sacrament upon it. On either side of that altar, and above it, are depictions of famous saints and biblical figures, as well as the Holy Trinity. Then, turning around in that same Vatican room, one sees the fresco in the upper image. It is the famous School of Athens, depicting great figures from the classical world with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them. They say things like this: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.” Or, to use Jesus’ words, we see ‘the children of this age’ in the upper image, contrasted with ‘the children of light’ in the lower one.

Yet, it’s quite possible to look at these related paintings in two different ways. We may, at first, be disposed to see the contrast between them as tour guides typically do. But we might also be open to seeing the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, those who notice continuity will observe that the two frescos are composed with the same elements: the same colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and, that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. Further, the perspective or vanishing point in each painting converges upon that of the other.

Finally, visitors entering this room walk in the same direction as Plato and Aristotle, and —with them— toward the altar on which the sacrament is displayed. As a result, visitors standing between the two paintings are at the equivalent of what would be ‘the crossing’ of a church, a church which looks remarkably like St. Peter’s, next door. And so, as Raphael designed it, Plato and Aristotle are in the same company as visitors to this room, who join them in approaching the altar in the fresco showing all the saints! Therefore, these two paintings provide a splendid illustration of the theme of continuity.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 Repentance

 

We know that indulging in some bad things, can make us feel good. Yet, how is it that doing some good things, can make us feel bad? This question arises because we live in a culture where we often measure the goodness of something by whether or not it makes us feel good. This is why repentance is paradoxical. It is a good thing. But, it can make us feel bad, even if we feel better afterwards. Well, how can something that makes you feel bad, be good for you?

For who wants to repent? Because repentance and reluctance often go together. Repentance means acknowledging, and then acting on, something we wish wasn’t true about us, or of our actions. Self-criticism is implicit in repentance. Though it can lead to self-improvement, repentance often has a cost we don’t want to pay. As a result, acknowledging fault is not pleasant. And, it can diminish our self-image, even if it later strengthens our self-respect.

There are three steps to repentance: first, recognizing our fault; second, acknowledging our failure; and, third, turning away from our bad attitude or behavior. Repentance is therefore more than admitting a mistake. Even if it is difficult, admitting mistakes is not as serious as taking responsibility for sin. What distinguishes sin is how we damage relationships. For, through sin, we hurt our fellowship with God, and we hurt our relationships with each other. This is why repentance is so challenging. Even if admitting mistakes is unpleasant, doing so is a lot easier than admitting I have harmed my relationship with God and with other people.

With his parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus in Luke not only commends repentance; he also tells us why. Even if repentance causes us to feel bad, Jesus points to its goal. He tells us that genuine repentance brings joy ~ joy to the angels. It’s another way of saying that our repentance brings joy to God. I like to think this is the infectious joy of heaven. Except that, we seem to be so well ‘inoculated’ against it! So, why isn’t the joy of heaven more infectious in our experience?

I think the answer follows from a second aspect of sin. Sin is not only an act ~ something we have done, or might do. Sin is also a condition ~ the condition that disposes us to do wrong things. This condition is reflected in wrong acts; and this condition causes self-deception, especially about the wrongness of what we have done. Sin therefore limits our readiness to bring joy to God. We know this. And yet, we’re not readily inclined to do something about it, nor do we have much confidence that we can.

Repentance is the antidote to the poisoning effect of sin. Therefore, it needs to be part of our spiritual health care, in a regular way, and not just once a year like a flu shot. Repentance as a spiritual practice needs to be an ongoing feature of how we live. Practice may make ‘perfect’ when it comes to art or sports, but not in ethics and spirituality. Yet, spiritual practice does build proficiency, and it does shape character. Repentance is therefore an important feature of healthy spiritual practice. Through repentance, we bring joy to heaven, and peace to our souls.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Lost Drachma. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 15, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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.

Taking Up the Cross

 

Luke tells us that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Doesn’t that sound hopeful, and a great way to describe the goal of our lives ~ to ‘travel with Jesus?’ Yet, turning to the crowds, Jesus says this: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate [family] and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Paying attention to these words we can notice something important, but something that we might otherwise overlook. It is this ~ that traveling with Jesus is not necessarily the same thing as following him. Jesus’ strong words are coupled with others that are equally off-putting. For he says that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In other words, on our best days we may wonder about which of our things we might be willing to give up. Yet, Jesus tells us that we must give up everything! What are we to do with these starkly uncompromising words?

Our temptation when considering Jesus’ strong words is to take them figuratively, or to blunt them by abstraction. Yet, it’s helpful to remember something that St. Anthony of Egypt perceived, centuries ago, about those who came to join him where he lived in a desert cave. Observing the newcomers, he came to realize that those who manage to give up their possessions don’t always give up their attachment to them. So, as Anthony came to see, it’s not possessions that are our problem, but our attachment to them.

This insight, found in the spirituality of both the East and the West, involves the spiritual practice of non-attachment. It can help us deal with Jesus’ hard sayings about family, possessions and our vocation. A spiritual writer, John Shea, offers a helpful understanding of Jesus’ words here. He observes that “possessions are whatever we hold onto that competes with our communion with Jesus and {our} cooperation with his mission. They are substitute absolutes.” In speaking about more than just physical things, Shea says that “an essential step of discipleship is selling what we have that keeps us from integrating the mind and actions of Christ into our minds and actions.”

Here, taking note of Eugene Peterson’s translation of our Gospel may be helpful. This is how Peterson renders Jesus’ words: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” Jesus is not urging us to engage in the counter-intuitive emotion of hate. Instead, he wants us to recognize how two objects of our affection can compete, and compete in such a way that one blots out the other. For it is possible for us to love our families and our present lives in such a way, and to such an extent, that these loves impede our ability to follow the Lord.

To follow Jesus is to be willing to shoulder the cross.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Simon the Cyrenian Compelled to Carry the Cross with Jesus. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 8, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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 Signs and Symbols

 

Why would Luke have thought it important to tell us that the woman whom  Jesus encounters on the Sabbath, in a synagogue, had been crippled for eighteen years? Luke could as easily have said that she had suffered for decades or since her childhood. But no, he tells us that it had been eighteen years. And consider how Jesus meets and heals her on the sabbath. For as we may know, the sabbath falls on the seventh day. It represents the seventh day of Creation and the fulfillment of God’s wise and beautiful pattern for the cosmos. This helps us recognize the meaningful fact that eighteen involves multiples of six — three multiples of six, to be precise. This woman has suffered for a period of time that represents multiples of incompleteness, a triple amount of falling short of wholeness, of not-yet-experiencing God’s hopes for her and the world. And Jesus brings a completeness for which the whole Creation has been groaning.

Yet, consider the effect upon us of our modern, advertising-shaped, culture. For you might suspect that the symbolic reading of this passage that I have just offered involves reading something into the text, something that is not necessarily there. Since, as we are widely encouraged to believe, symbols are merely signs, that bear no intrinsic connection with what they point to. If so, then all signs  —whether they are names or numbers— are potentially arbitrary and idiosyncratic. Here, we must move forward in faith, and be willing to entertain another possibility. The alternative possibility is that we will find more in this text – ‘a meaning’ that really is there, to be gleaned, savored, and incorporated in our lives. Its meaning has to do with blessed rest, and when we rest in a real way.

Let’s come at this from another direction. Ask most American Christians these days when ‘the sabbath’ is, and a common answer will be ‘Sunday.’ If we assume this is true, then our sabbath is different from the biblical sabbath, which raises a larger question. Is the connection between the idea of the sabbath, and a particular day of the week, essentially arbitrary? As long as we have some kind of sabbath, does it really matter when? But then, consider what we lose in the process. We lose our connection with biblical faith, with the sabbath that Jesus observed, and with the idea that the sabbath fulfills all that has come before. We take a break on the seventh day, on Saturday (if we can), for a reason ~ a holy reason. We do it so we might better appreciate how God fulfills divine purposes through grace and Providence. And so, God’s sabbath helps us remember that our future is shaped as much by God as it is by our own works and efforts.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Woman With an Infirmity of Eighteen Years. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 25, 2019, where you will find more extensive reflection on the distinction between signs and symbols, and which can be accessed by clicking hereOther 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.