Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty 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.

The Beauty of His Return

 

Here we see a remarkable painting by Richard Mudariki. He is a black African, born in Zimbabwe, who later moved to South Africa. His painting is titled, The Last Judgement (2013), and it is obviously indebted to its namesake mural by Michelangelo. Yet, given the recognizable figures Mudariki has portrayed, his painting is obviously political in its conception. With this particular content, his title may seem ironic or even cynical. Especially because the painting diverges from recognizable biblical imagery, and appears to deviate from traditional Christian doctrine. And yet, if this is how we perceive it, our response may be based on an unexamined assumption. For when we think about the Last Judgement, and what it calls to account, we may have too narrow a starting point. Because our ‘final accounting before God’ will be about much more than simply our personal sins and private shortcomings.

At first it seems incongruous for the artist to portray Nelson Mandela in the central position where, following Michelangelo, we expect to see our Lord. The image of Queen Elizabeth, next to him, compounds our surprise. She has been placed in the position given to Mary, the Lord’s mother, in Michelangelo’s famous mural. Here, once again, our assumptions may be getting in the way. Whereas Michelangelo, following the tradition, set out to depict the entirety of the Last Judgement, Richard Mudariki is exploring a more limited and symbolic aspect of it. His rationale for portraying the scene in this way, may become clearer to us by considering a historical approach to the liturgy of Christian burial.

The casket of a priest is brought into a church for a funeral in a markedly different way from how a lay person’s casket is brought in. A lay person’s body is brought in feet first. So his or her body is poised facing liturgical east ~ the direction of the resurrection and Christ ‘s return at the end of time. But a priest ‘s body is brought in head first. This symbolizes how, at the second coming and the Final Judgement, priests face their people. This models our accountability, not only to our Lord but also to our people, whose spiritual care has been entrusted to us. Therefore, symbolically, we face them, rather than our Lord, at the Last Judgment.

And so, according to this interpretation, recognizable political and religious figures like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu face us, the viewers of this painting. They all may appear worthy in our eyes. Yet, also facing us are upside-down figures like Adolf Hitler and, perhaps surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher. They are depicted as descending to be among the damned, when the final trumpets are blown, to be in the company of Che Guevara and Mao Tse Tung. In their affirmation or in their condemnation, all these figures face us because of the ‘ministry’ of public leadership that was entrusted to them.

 

This post is based on my homily for Advent 1, December 2, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Christ the King

 

The glorious authority of Christ the King is beautifully portrayed in the Ghent Altarpiece, by Van Eyck, among the greatest works of European art. We see the one who sacrificed himself, by becoming like a lamb led to slaughter. The “mystic lamb” is now sovereign over the cosmos, with the crowns of this world’s kings at his feet. Robed in what Charles Wesley called “dreadful majesty,” he now blesses the world with his upheld hand.

Believing in Christ the King involves believing not only that we are presently one with him, in the Spirit. It also involves believing that he will come again in glory. For he will bring to completion and fulfillment –in our experience– all that he accomplished through his death, resurrection and ascension. Drawing again upon Charles Wesley’s paraphrase of Revelation 1, it means believing that when “Christ the Lord returns to reign, [e]very eye shall… behold him…; [even] those who set at nought and sold him, pierced and nailed him to the tree.”

We may be tempted to lament that we do not see him now, and that we have to wait. But we do see him ~ in the ways that he has chosen to reveal himself ~ in ourselves and in each other. Most especially, we see him in the sacrament of the Eucharist, our foretaste of the full revealing of his glory.

Now, to call Christ the “King,” and to say that “he shall come again,” may seem like abstract statements, disconnected from our lives. Yet, we can ask a question that makes these statements concrete. Let’s ask ourselves this: who reigns, or who exercises sovereignty over my life? Who is truly king of my life, every day? In principle, we may say that it is Jesus. But in practice, it’s not so simple. For the answer about who really functions as king in my life, is not likely to be him, but me! In other words, Christ may be King. But I act and live like the kind of prideful prince who can’t wait to take over, and who behaves as if he already has.

And so we need to remember this: in principle, God has crowned Christ as King, and will never dethrone him. Yet, in practice, we are able to push Christ aside from sovereignty over our lives, or at least ignore his power. At the same time, since he is already Christ the King, we can honor him as sovereign over ourselves. His glory then replenishes our poverty of spirit, and transforms the emptiness of our virtue. In the process, the reality of his kingship does not change. Yet the actuality of his meaning for us grows profoundly, every day.

 

This post is based on my homily for the Feast of Christ the King, November 25, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Being Within God’s Loving Regard

 

Recently, a friend suggested that I watch the Disney Pixar film, Coco. He commended it because the movie connects directly with the celebration of the great feast of All Saints. Coco also bears upon our observance of All Soul’s Day and All Hallow’s Eve (or Halloween). The movie is set in a traditional Mexican village on the eve of All Saints. In Latin America, and especially in Mexican culture, this feast is traditionally called Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. At the heart of the film, and at the center of All Saints, is a reality ~ the reality of our continuing fellowship and communion with those who have died and gone before us. This is why, in the revised Lectionary, the readings for All Saints are among those also designated for funerals.

Coco draws us into recognizing how myths, whether ancient or modern, powerfully present truths we already know. We find this, of course, in the opening chapters of Genesis. But we also find how myths play a role in our secular culture. We are enchanted by narrative, and charmed by stunning visual imagery. And we are touched when we are reminded by how family and community relationships shape us. Yet, to refer to biblical and other stories as involving myth, we need to be very clear that the power of myth depends upon the power of truth. {In effect, not all myths are ‘real;’ not all news conveys ‘truth‘}. And so, because human connections are real in our life experience, we are moved by representations of them in ancient Scriptures, as well as in modern literature and the visual arts. What is true, has always been true.

And what surely has always been true, for the peoples of the world, is this: we do not want to be alone. We do not want to be separated from our families and our friends. And if either family or friends, or both, have been hurtful to us, we still yearn for ideal examples of them —especially when hopeful images of these relationships give us strength to hold our current experience to account.

So, if we don’t want to be separated from our families and friends, we also yearn for a connection with our heritage. We value the history of our family and our many forebears, as well as of our communities. Coco the movie plays upon this wonderful aspect of our human experience.

And yet, while commending Coco, I do not think we should accept uncritically every aspect of this delightful film’s story. For Coco contains a notable divergence from traditional Judaism and Christianity. The movie portrays —as being central to the observance of the Day of the Dead— a particular belief. It is this ~ that, if we are not remembered by others, we cease to exist. Yet, as faithful Christians and Jews believe, we are always known and remembered by God, even if our family or our community forgets us! Even if we cease to exist for them, we never cease to exist in God’s loving regard for us.

 

This post is based on my homily for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is an image found on the internet related to promotion of the film, CocoOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of What He Would Do For Us

 

Here we see James Tissot’s marvelous painting of a Gospel scene, which portrays Matthew’s telling of the story. Matthew mentions two blind men calling out to Jesus. Yet, Mark chooses to focus on just one of them, whom he names as Bartimaeus. But the scene largely remains the same in both Gospels. Jesus and his followers are in Jericho, on their way up to Jerusalem. They are approaching his triumphal entry into the Holy City on what we now call Palm Sunday.

I like to think of the man on the right, in this painting, as Bartimaeus, who –as Mark suggests– lost his sight at an earlier point in his life. Tissot depicts the other man’s eyes as covered, in the way that some sight-impaired people wear sunglasses. Perhaps that other man had been blind from birth. If so, He provides a contrast to Bartimaeus. Noticing this may help us appreciate the symbolic dimension of blindness and sight at the center of Mark’s Gospel. And it will help us attend to his deeper meaning. For Bartimaeus had sight earlier in life and then lost it. Now, when encountering Jesus, his ability to see is restored.

Let’s recall how, in the immediately prior story in Mark, James and John act pridefully when approaching Jesus. Do you remember the question Jesus asked them? He asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?”

It’s no coincidence then, that Mark, in his follow-on story, records what Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus. It’s the same question: “what do you want me to do for you?” As Mark presents the two successive and paired stories, I wonder if we perceive the parallel between them. First, we hear James and John blindly ask Jesus to share in his glory. When answering the two spiritually-unseeing disciples, Jesus provides a forceful correction, if not also a rebuke. Then, in the following story, when Bartimaeus perceptively asks for the recovery of his sight, Jesus responds mercifully to the physically blind man.

This tells us something rather important. For if we talk to our Lord at all, like the disciples we probably make requests of him. And, what we ask Jesus to do may, or may not, be in accord with his will for us; and it may not fit with God’s plans for us. James and John asked for something that diminished their experience of participating in God’s Kingdom. Whereas Bartimaeus asked for something that opened up the fullness of the Kingdom. And, it made him “well.”

We can then draw out the implications of this contrast. Because Jesus is not just ‘the answer to all our questions.’ Jesus also acts as ‘the question who prompts our best answers.’

In other words, Jesus asks us the same question: What do you want me to do for you? This could be his most challenging question to us as the people of God, and not just to us as individuals! So then, if we could ask him for only one thing, what would it be?

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, October 28, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is James Tissot’s painting, titled The Two Blind Men at JerichoOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

 

The Unexpected Beauty of Ransom

 

In late 1987, two American college students were exploring the jungles of Columbia. After obtaining a canoe, they embarked upon the Putumayo River and strayed into territory held by a Marxist rebel army. Formally known as FARC, these guerrilla soldiers abducted the students and held them captive for ten months in various jungle camps. By chance, I met the parents of one of them about a month after their capture.

At first, the FARC guerrillas thought the two men were CIA agents, though the students soon corrected this. But then their captors came to see them as hostages with economic value. Soon, their parents hired an American explorer, who found the hostages and their captors. After four months of negotiations, conducted by a Roman Catholic bishop, the students were released and taken to the American Embassy in Bogata.

For privacy and security, the family did not publicize the terms of release for the young explorers. But I believe it involved the payment of money, probably a lot of it. Ransom is a way to describe this kind of payment, where something valuable is exchanged for the freedom of captives. I have included here a copy of John Everett Millais’ painting, The Ransom. In it, we see an artist’s rendering of this kind of exchange, where a father hands over of fistful of jewelry to some men who have taken his daughters hostage. Revolutionaries and criminals have long used ransom as an efficient means of fund-raising, especially when their captives come from wealthy families or are politically well-connected. Google “hostage ransom” and you will find numerous cases.

Clearly, when payments are made to captors, the purpose is not to honor or reward the hostage-takers, even if providing money reinforces the logic of hostage-taking. Instead, these payments reflect an abiding concern for those who are held captive, awaiting redemption. We find another example of this in the ransom of the journalist, Amanda Lindhout, who was kidnapped in Somalia in 2008. The owner of the Calgary Flames hockey team, who did not know Amanda, was moved to pay around $750,000 to secure her freedom.

These contemporary examples of ransom are from a secular context. Yet, the concept of ransom is deeply rooted in our Judeo-Christian tradition, and it shapes how we understand redemption. A much-loved Advent hymn begins this way: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…” In the Old Testament, God’s promises inspire hope for the possibility of ransom, while God’s judgment warns of withholding ransom. The Psalmist sings the hope, “that God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol…” And the prophet Hosea speaks the threat: “Shall I ransom them from… Death? … Compassion is hidden from my eyes.”

These observations help us understand Jesus’ words in Mark’s Gospel, when he speaks to his slow-to-understand disciples. As Jesus tells them, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” We can find an unexpected beauty here in his reference to ransom, and to his sacrificial offering of himself.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, October 21, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is the painting by John Even Millais, titled The Ransom (1860-02). Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

 

 

The Beauty of Offering and Sacrifice

 

What does it mean to give ‘our all’ to God? And why would we want to do that? There are basically two approaches to answering these questions. Do we seek to have our present reasoning justified? Or, do we seek to have our hearts changed?

Consider the life of the early Christian saint, Anthony of Egypt. His parents had died, leaving him considerable wealth and the care of his sister. As he was walking to church one day, he was reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ words, “Sell all that you have, and give to the poor, … and come, follow me.” Arriving at church, he heard the preacher speak about the same Bible passage. Anthony took this Gospel to heart, believing it applied directly to him. As a result, he gave away his land to the poor tenants who lived on it, and sold the rest of his possessions. Then, after arranging for his sister’s care, Anthony went into the desert to live and pray in extreme simplicity.

Years later, Anthony’s holy example of a life centered on God attracted followers who gathered around him in desert caves. Among those who imitated him by selling their belongings, Anthony noticed something odd. All of them had given up what they owned, and literally had nothing. But many of them couldn’t stop thinking about what they had given away. They had parted with their material possessions; yet, they had not let go of them spiritually!

Anthony’s story provides a concrete vindication of Jesus’ teaching concerning the things we consider to be most important and valuable. For we soon find ourselves justifying our attachment to them. In other words, ‘where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.” Or, from an Appreciative Inquiry point of view, wherever our attention is focused, there we will direct our energy. So, let’s ask this: what is most important to us? And what is most important for us?

Here, I invite you to reflect on Heinrich Hoffman’s painting, shown above. This is one of the most-often reproduced images of Jesus’ face. It beautifully illustrates Mark’s comment about how, when the rich young man sought to justify himself, “Jesus loved him.” And yet, notice how that young man looks away from Jesus’ gaze.

When Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you,” he was not speaking lightly, but literally. He and his brother Andrew, as well as James and John, had left their fathers, their family employment and their sources of income. Their example provides a huge challenge for every subsequent follower of the Nazarene Rabbi.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, October 14, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is Heinrich Hoffman’s painting, Christ and the Rich Young Ruler. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Marriage

 

A rewarding part of my ministry over the years has been helping couples prepare for marriage. I often begin our conversations with some rhetorical questions. My goal is to help couples think about marriage in a deeper and more reflective way. One question I almost always ask is this: Given what we read in Genesis, does this mean that marriage is naturally permanent? I choose these words carefully. Some people respond by saying, “why, yes.” But then, I point out two difficulties arising from a ‘yes’ answer. The first is a practical one. If marriage is naturally permanent, then why do they come apart? Given that they do, isn’t it better to recognize our fall from Grace? So, even if God created marriage as gift that was meant to be permanent, our exile from Eden has surely altered God’s created reality.

Second, if we believe that marriage is naturally permanent, then why do we have sacramental marriage as a liturgical rite? For it symbolizes a grace-enabled transformation. Acknowledging this about the marriage rite, and recognizing the effects of the Fall, leads us to a further insight. Permanent marriage may have been the Creator’s original intention for us. And so, we can still see a reflection of God’s purpose even in our fallen state. For we yet have an inclination to seek enduring marital relationships, even if we cannot—on our own—achieve permanency. These three observations, first, about the Creator’s intentions; second, about the effects of the fall upon us; and, third, about the sacramental remedy for our fallen condition, fit together to shape our Christian view of marriage. Recognizing these three components helps us live toward and into the beauty of God’s hopes for us, in a world still marked by our fall from Grace.

These observations can help us appreciate an important Gospel episode. Pharisees come to test Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful,” they ask, “for a man to divorce his wife?” Their question has layers of meaning. The varied circumstances of human life in this world are often more complicated than God’s revealed law can completely cover. So the Pharisees would recognize that human law even when it is based on divine law often goes beyond it. They make this clear when they refer to how Moses granted permission to divorce. As we know, not every aspect of God’s revealed law has proved everlasting. Think, for instance, about dietary laws in light of the Gospel. And so, when the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is lawful, they are not necessarily asking about the Creator’s intentions, nor about God’s abiding will for Israel. Instead of inquiring about what is good and beautiful, they ask about what is permitted. And this is why Jesus’ response to them is so important.

That is, Jesus does not accept, nor does he feel bound by, their narrow assumptions. His way of responding to them helps us recognize a central principle within Christian ethics, and Anglican Moral Theology. When someone asks if something is “allowed,” notice the limitations of the question. Asking if something is legal, or if it is permitted by custom, is different from asking if it is right. And sometimes, it is little more than asking if I can ‘get away with it.’ Therefore, when the Pharisees ask if divorce is ‘allowed,’ Jesus steers them back to the better question, which is this: What does God want of you? What choice best reflects God’s will, and God’s hopes for you?

We should always remember how Jesus challenges our inclination to fall back upon what is familiar and known, and upon what is socially accepted. The latter may give us insight. But it may also mislead us and keep us from aspiring to the beauty of what God hopes for us.

 

This post is based upon my homily for October 7, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The above images are once again by James Tissot, from his series of images covering the Old Testament, many of which are preserved in the Jewish Museum, in New York City. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of God’s Unpredictable Gifts

 

 

In two medieval manuscript images, Rudolf von Ems nicely illustrates the situation. Moses is frustrated ~ and who wouldn’t be, at such a moment? He’s trying to lead a bunch of lamenting and back-biting Israelites through the wilderness. Wailing and weeping, his people long for their old homeland, and for its cucumbers, melons, and leeks. But they seem to have forgotten an inconvenient fact ~ that they were slaves in the old country. They don’t acknowledge God’s mercy in having led them out of Egpyt, on their journey to deliverance. And, during their exodus, they complain about God’s gift of the manna. Like snow coming down from above, bread descends from heaven allowing them to eat every day! Their criticism provokes God’s anger to be expressed in a curious way. After the manna, God later sends down quails for them to eat, as the second image imaginatively portrays.

In the face of these complaints, all Moses can do is throw up his hands in prayer. And God answers! God tells Moses to gather seventy elders and leaders at the tent of meeting. The Lord then takes some of the Spirit resting on Moses, and puts it on the seventy. When God’s Spirit touches them, they prophesy. God’s Spirit is made evident in ecstatic utterances and trances.

To everyone’s surprise, two men back at the camp, who are not among the seventy, are also touched by the same Spirit. This is confusing! Though the two bear the same signs of God’s Spirit, it happens outside the expected pattern! Joshua voices this concern, and begs Moses to forbid the two from acting in this way. But Moses says to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

We hear a similar concern expressed by Jesus’ disciples in Mark’s Gospel. Through John, they ask Jesus to address a problem. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him.” The problem is not that someone besides Jesus is casting out demons and performing miraculous signs. For Mark has already described how Jesus commissioned the disciples to heal and cast out demons The problem is that these exorcisms are being done by someone who is not one of Jesus’ followers. The same challenge arises later when the newly converted Paul begins to speak and act as if he was a disciple and a member of the 12.

In response, Jesus challenges his disciples using remarkably expansive words: “whoever is not against us, is for us.” In this era, these words may be hard to appreciate.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 30, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The above two images are by the medieval manuscript artist, Rudolf von Ems, which illustrate two scenes from Numbers 11. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Meals Together

 

There’s just something appealing about eating outdoors. And people everywhere seem to recognize this.

So it’s no surprise that some of the most memorable scenes in the Bible involve meals outdoors. These stories provide us with images of people receiving nourishment together, and experiencing fellowship with one another. Yet, these significant occasions stand out because they center on encounters with God. Sitting down with others at a feast is a potent Scriptural image, which connects our life in this world to our life in the next. This is why Christians gather around a table every Sunday. For Jesus said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” And so, both the Last Supper, and ordinary meals, prefigure God’s heavenly banquet. We gather for meal, which we then perceive to be a holy occasion ~ an occasion of fellowship with others in God’s presence. When we gather in this way, we see glimpses of God’s expansive Kingdom.

One of the most evocative of such occasions is found in Exodus 24, in a passage that is often overlooked. After the people of Israel cross the Red Sea, in their Passover escape from Egyptian slavery, Moses gathers them at the foot of Mt Sinai. There, he reads to them from the book of the Covenant. After reading, he sprinkles the blood of the Covenant upon the altar and upon the people. To quote from Exodus, then Moses “Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up (the mountain), and they saw the God of Israel… God did not lay his hand on the chief… people of Israel; [and so] they beheld God, and they ate and drank” in God’s presence, at the top of a mountain. A shared meal in God’s presence involves seeing the Lord.

Writing his Gospel over a thousand years later, John surely had this scene in mind. Drawn by the signs of healing Jesus was doing, a large crowd follows him into a ‘deserted place.’ (Recall how often God reveals self in ‘deserted places.’) With the Passover auspiciously near, Jesus goes up a mountain with his disciples, and sits near the top. In this scene, the bread of life, the bread of heaven, comes down into the midst of God’s people in two ways: in Jesus, and in what they eat. The gathered people eat and drink with one another in God’s presence. And they feast upon the unexpected abundance of divine gifts, for which Jesus has offered thanks. Stunned by the power of his new miraculous sign, the people say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 29, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, and is titled, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The meal outdoors story from John is found in chapter 6 of his Gospel. (Other Sunday homilies of mine can be accessed by clicking here.)

The Beauty of Emotional Intelligence

 

In Mark’s Gospel, we hear a story about Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. It is easy to overlook a critical aspect of this story ~ the fact that Jesus chooses to travel to an area populated by Gentiles. There, he is confronted by a woman who for two reasons is ‘an outsider’: she is not an Israelite, and her daughter has a demon.

By overlooking Jesus’ choice, it then becomes easy to mishear a vital aspect of this Gospel reading. It’s Jesus’ willingness to be playful —even dangerously playful— as he enlarges our concept of God’s Kingdom. Some contemporary commentators don’t recognize this about Jesus’ journey into the region of Tyre. For they view it as a story about how a Gentile woman enlarges Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom. This follows from the way modern theologians stress the humanity of Jesus over his divinity. In other words, ‘how he was like us’ comes to overshadow ‘how he was different from us.’

This is especially true with our understanding of intellect. We associate ‘intelligence’ with skills like computing numbers and remembering information. Yet, the key to this Gospel story may lie in something different, in what is called “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is relational, and involves feelings, character and temperament. It depends on maturity, and relies on insight about what enhances or hinders well-functioning community. When we overlook these fuller dimensions of ourselves, we limit our concept of what it means to be human.

Think, for example, about humor. We assume humor depends on being witty, and making fun of people and situations. We forget that we also deal with serious things through humor. Humor approaches life indirectly, from the side, instead of straight-on. In medieval times, Christians actually debated whether Jesus ever laughed! We know he wept, but Scripture never records Jesus as laughing. Surely, we can see beyond this narrow assumption that Jesus never laughed or spoke with irony and humor.

Appreciating how Jesus uses playful humor helps us understand his interaction with the Canaanite woman, and how he is compassionate rather than rude in speaking with her. The story displays the beauty of his emotional intelligence instead of a limitation in his perception of his vocation.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 9, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The Egyptian Arabic manuscript illustration above is credited to Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rabib (1684).