Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty five years, having served in parishes and in academia. My interests include art and theology, liturgy and spirituality, and I love to go sailing whenever I can.

On Being a Neighbor

 

Luke records how a self-justifying lawyer seeks to test Jesus. When he asks Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is, Jesus offers one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament. His story about the good Samaritan is shaped by the dramatic contrast between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.

Another contrast within the same passage is rather subtle. This is the contrast between the lawyer’s question about who his neighbor is, and Jesus’ recasting of the same question. For even though the two forms of the question sound remarkably alike, there is a significant difference between them. So similar, that we might not notice how subtly Jesus re-phrases the lawyer’s question. Here’s how we can observe the difference: The lawyer, after receiving Jesus’ affirmation regarding his summary of the law, still wants to engage him. So he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Naturally, we hear Jesus’ ensuing story as shaped by the lawyer’s question. As if Jesus wants to show the lawyer whom we should recognize, and regard, as our neighbor.

But notice how Jesus inverts the question! The man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus asks, “Who proved to be neighborly, or, who acted like a neighbor?” In other words, Jesus’ story is not an illustration of how we recognize who is our neighbor. Jesus’ story is about how acting like a neighbor toward other people helps them become our neighbor.

Like the lawyer, when we look at folks wondering who is, or who might be our neighbor, inevitably, we pursue the question with some criteria in mind. And that’s the rub! We might pursue the question by assuming that a neighbor is someone who lives nearby; or perhaps someone who shares my community values; or maybe someone whose kids go to the same school that my kids do. It puts us in the position of making distinctions among folks based on their attributes. And it’s always possible that we misperceive another person’s identity. We might blindly overlook his or her genuine status as our neighbor.  In each case, our effort will involve trying to gain greater precision in our discernment about who does, or does not, qualify as our neighbor.

By contrast, suppose I go through each day trying to live out a different approach. I will remind myself that I can choose to act neighborly to everyone I meet, not just to some of them. Neighbor-status is therefore something I enable by my approach to another person, and not by my evaluation of his or her qualifications. This is what Jesus was getting at in his story. His re-phrasing of the lawyer’s question establishes a distinction with a clear and significant difference. Charity, in its basic biblical meaning of God-like love, is something we practice and extend to others. It is therefore not something evoked by qualities we apprehend in another person. Being a neighbor is an entrée into a relationship, a relationship that we offer to other people, rather than something we recognize in them. This applies as much to folks in our community and church, as it does to people everywhere.

 

The image above is Sadao Watanabe’s woodcut, The Good Samaritan. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 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.

His Continuing Mission

 

One of the most familiar aspects of the Gospels is Jesus’ choice of ‘the twelve,’ whom he appoints as his disciples. All four Gospels mention the twelve. Luke alone (in chapter 10) records a second sending out of Jesus’ followers in mission, which numbered seventy of them.

Whereas the ministry of the twelve becomes associated with the ordained ministers of the Church, the ministry of the seventy represents the ministry of the laity, the whole Body of the Church, and of all the baptized. Like the seventy, we are all sent out as bearers of the Kingdom and of the Kingdom’s Risen Lord. And so, we are able to say, to all those we meet, “the Kingdom of God has come near to you!” This is not a theoretical statement. It specifically refers to the Lord’s presence within every baptized person. For every one of us becomes a moving temple of the Holy Spirit, wherever we go, and whatever we do.

At Baptism, we are all appointed and commissioned as ministers of the Gospel. Commissioning is comissioning – we are joined to the Lord; we are joined to the Lord’s Risen Body; and therefore, we are joined to the Lord’s ongoing mission. The Lord’s ongoing mission is something more expansive than simply providing worship, formation and care, in and to the local congregation. The Lord’s ongoing mission is to the whole world, and it involves announcing the real presence of God’s Kingdom.

God’s Kingdom is made present in and through each one of us by the Lord who commissions us. We are not only sent out in his name. We are sent out with his Spirit. Perhaps, we might have occasion to marvel that “even the demons are subject to us.” The truth of this statement does not rest on any attribute of ours. Demons are subject to us only because we bear the Lord’s Spirit-transforming presence. For Jesus is Lord over heaven and earth… and, therefore, Lord over every spirit not in accord with the Holy Spirit.

Notice the Lord’s words to the Seventy upon their return. He says, “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you.” Jesus does not dispute that evil spirits will submit to us. They are indeed subject to us. But only subject to us in so far as we ourselves are subject to the Lord. He just does not want us to focus on how or whether they may be subject to us. For —in our human pride— we misunderstand and misrepresent the source of his power. We should remember his words to the seventy: “See, I have given you authority… over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” And this is this is true because of the reality in which he wants us to rejoice : We are part of his Body, the Church. Therefore, in him, we have an ongoing mission to the world. Through us, his mission continues.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Christ Sending Out the Seventy Disciples, Two By Two. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 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 Challenging Beauty of Our Vocation

 

Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. For him, it represents both unconscious momentum and conscious decision. Intuitively aware of the probable result, he goes anyway. The disciples only discover this along the way. They never quite understand the ‘cost’ of following Jesus until payment is demanded. It is at Jerusalem ~ called the city of God, where the divine glory dwells in the Temple. It is also a place of looming adversity and conflict. Why? Because Jesus is not a threat to spiritual religion if it is truth-seeking. Yet, he is a threat to worldly power. Because, confronted by his genuine spiritual authority, worldly power appears as what it is ~ empty, yet falsely alluring.

On his journey, Jesus senses what lies ahead. For him, Jerusalem will mean one thing ~ challenge ending in death. For others, a journey to Jerusalem need not be anything like what it will bring for him. But for him, it is his vocation, his calling. He must walk the Messiah path toward the holy city, to fulfill the prophet’s words that God will come suddenly to his Temple. Walking this path will expose him to conflict — conflict brought by those who attach themselves to the periphery of holiness… to the accessories of religion.

Like an immense rock, Jesus is so grounded in himself, and in his calling, that he cannot be shaken, or lured from following it. Centered in his godly identity, his presence and words have the power to shake everything else. He is like the brilliant summer sun, splaying its dazzling rays upon wax candles and dark chocolate, causing them to melt. Jesus has this effect on some people, who shy away from him… at least until they gather enough courage with like-minded others, to try to do away with him.

The Spirit-of-God-power working through him has been for the good: healing infirmity; casting out demons; bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf; releasing lepers burdened by pain and isolation. These are signs of the Kingdom breaking into the world with new power. The message about these things comes to be called Good News. And yet, this Spirit-of-God-power in him will soon challenge more than outward symptoms of fallen humanity. Soon he will challenge the foundations of another kingdom, the kingdom of darkness. This is why the demons cry out at him, “what have you got to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Indeed, what have you to do with us, Jesus?

So Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. Luke wants us to notice how Jesus’ vocation becomes the template for our vocation. Jesus shares with us and with everyone his own calling. This is his vocation to walk through this world as someone beloved by God, as God’s holy one. The Father’s words to him at his Baptism signaled this. And our heavenly Father says the same thing to everyone who accepts the gift of Jesus’ vocation at Baptism – youyouyou are my chosen, my beloved, upon whom my favor rests. As we follow him, Jesus shares with us the purpose and power of his vocation.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, He Went Through the Villages on the Way to Jerusalem. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, June 30, 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 Encompassing Love

 

 

Deliberately, Jesus goes into a region where Gentile’s live. To the people of Israel, pagan societies like those of Greece and Rome signified a culture of death rather than one of life. We should not be surprised, then, that Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man who dwells among the tombs of a cemetery. Quite aside from the demons inhabiting him, the possessed man is unclean from living in a place for the dead. So then, is it merely a small detail or a coincidence that the the demons are called “Legion?” For this name refers to a cohort of pagan Roman soldiers! Or that, after they are released from the possessed man, the demons enter into what for Jews are the ritually unclean and forbidden swine?

In the image above, we see one of the beautiful Magdeburg Ivories. Jesus is commanding the demon to come out of the man who is held by friends, with the swine at his feet. The expelled demon looks like the fallen angel that it is, emerging from the possessed man’s mouth.

Notice how Jesus, in Luke as well as in this image, engages the possessed man directly. He shows no concern for his own safety, or his spiritual defilement from contact with a demon-possessed Gentile. Luke describes how the demons defer to Jesus and his implicit authority. They beg him to spare them from a return to the abyss, the realm of the dead symbolized by the depths of the sea. Jesus might have responded by ordering the demons to simply leave the man. They would then have remained among the tombs as a continuing danger to the nearby Gentile city. Yet, he permits them to leave the possessed man and enter a herd of pigs, which immediately rush down the hillside ~ ironically, right into the dreaded sea!

Surprisingly, Jesus responds positively when the unclean demons twice beg him for something. And yet, when the newly-healed man begs to stay with him, Jesus responds negatively! This helps us discern one of Luke’s main themes. When Jesus tells the healed-man to return home instead of following him, Jesus also instructs the man to declare to others how much God has done for him. Obediently, the man goes back to his Gentile community. Not surprisingly, he proclaims how much Jesus has done for him. God’s kingdom power continues to be manifest in the mission and ministry of Jesus.

 

The image above is of one of the Magdeburg Ivories, Christ Healing the Possessed of Gerasa (ca.968 A.D.), now located at Darmstadt, Germany {from a series of hand-carved ivory panels donated by Emperor Otto the Great to the Magdeburg Cathedral}. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, June 23, 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.

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.