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.

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.

Fire and Water

 

Jesus (in Luke) tells us this: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” For me, his words evoke pictures of forest fires, gas explosions, and what happened to our poor neighbor’s house down the street ~ ravaging flames and intense heat reducing things to ashes. By talking about casting fire on the earth, is this what Jesus had in mind? Did he come to burn and destroy? Or, has he come to ignite and light up what he touches? Since his next words refer to a Baptism that has yet to happen, we can tell that Jesus was not using words in an ordinary way.

Jesus’ talk of fire in connection with his vocation recalls an earlier prediction about the Messiah in Luke’s Gospel. John the Baptist told the crowds who had come out to see him, “I baptize you with water; but… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to… gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” There – in just two sentences – we have both positive and negative images put side by side: fire as the sign of the Holy Spirit, as on the Day of Pentecost; but also fire as the unquenchable force that burns up everything useless, until it is nothing.

Now, as we observe every Ash Wednesday, fire starts with what is good and useful and reduces it to an ashen nothing. This fits our natural experience. Yet, for practicing Christians, the pattern is liturgically reversed. Starting as an ash-covered nothing on a particular Wednesday, you and I journey through the Paschal flame and the fire of Pentecost, into a season of Spirit-kindled life. Despite their obvious differences, the ravaging fire and the building-up fire belong together. We talk of things being engulfed by flames, or being overwhelmed by fire. We use those same words to speak of what water can do, of what floods can do. Jesus has come to flood the earth with the baptizing fire of the Holy Spirit. His fire can consume and destroy all that is opposed to God’s love. But the flames of his love are also like the fire that clears the forest floor for new growth, and the heat which releases pinecone seeds for a new generation of trees.

“…and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus expresses frustration because we so often treat the power of the Holy Spirit like we do the power of fire. Reducing both to small quantities, we make them harmless. Candles allow small bits of flame to lighten our tables; short prayers allow brief moments of grace to lighten our days. But tip the candle over so the fire catches the curtains, and suddenly we have a truly fearful situation. Perhaps we are intuitively aware of this, of how encountering the unleashed Spirit of God flowing through this world is equally powerful ~ an agent of change for which we are not fully prepared.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Discourses With His Disciples. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 18, 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 Discernment

 

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me’.” Luke is so subtle here. This un-named man, who appears to want to remain anonymous, is perhaps a generic stand-in for all fallen human beings. For he is us ~ not some unnamed ‘other!’ Nevertheless, and as a sign of the same sin, this man wants a particular judgement tailored to his own personal circumstances. Yet, Jesus, as he so often does when teaching, responds with generic principles that apply to everyone and to every circumstance.

This matches my own experience. When, through prayer I ask God to solve a particular problem, I often find the Spirit leading me back to deep and abiding principles, just as Jesus did with the unnamed man. By this, God prompts us to engage in a searching process of discernment. This helps us understand what our questions are really about, so we can appreciate what what we are really asking for. The discernment that God encourages within us leads us to self-awareness and greater self-perception.

A man asks Jesus to solve his financial problems by making his brother share the family inheritance. And Jesus says to him, and to everyone else in the crowd including the disciples, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” Those are words that apply to all of us, not just to the anonymous question-asker hiding in the crowd who wants his particular problem solved. Characteristically, Jesus then tells a story to illustrate his point.

James Tissot has left us with an evocative and cautionary painting illustrating Jesus’ parable about ‘the man who hoards.’ Concerning the danger of greed, Tissot’s painting focus’ on the spiritual warning that Jesus provides. The greedy man in the story is commonly referred to as the rich fool. As this troubled man sits among his many large sacks of grain and other valuables, he ponders how to hang on to his accumulating wealth. Having more than he needs, he considers replacing his present storage barns with larger ones. In the process, his avarice takes hold of him, gravely endangering his soul. Tissot captures the spiritual seriousness of the moment by employing a symbol representing the mortal threat at the heart of the story. Unseen behind the greedy man, the power of death is symbolized by the large figure unleashing a sword.

As the disciples and others begin to perceive from their Master’s sayings and stories, Jesus’ vocation as Messiah lifts him above having merely a local role as a teacher and guide for a particular community. For Jesus’ teaching applies to all communities at all times, not just to this or that community set within a single cultural context. So, when asked to settle the unnamed man’s case concerning inheritance, Jesus’ reply should not surprise us: “”Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Man Who Hoards. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 4, 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.

 

 

Seeing His Glory

 

(From a funeral homily preached today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration)

Martin, after death, is not closer to the Lord than he was before ~ even though he, himself, may now feel closer. This is at least in part because he now sees the Lord in a way that we do not. Yet, after Baptism, God is in us, and we are in him ~ always. And then, at death, this bud of truth comes to full flower. For, through death, our departed loved ones come to experience the Lord’s nearness in an especially profound way… and, in a way they have never really glimpsed before. We can imagine their joy at this moment. Suddenly, they are overcome by that same sense of startling nearness that our ancestor Jacob had, upon waking from his famous dream. “Surely,” he exclaimed, “the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And then he said, “how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” On Friday, July 26, this may have been Martin’s sudden and blessed realization.

Martin saw himself, in his life and work as a physician, as a tool in God’s hands. Martin’s self-perception about his vocation fits well with themes in John‘s Gospel. John boldly tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The disciples knew from their own experience the power of these words, as this feast day of Jesus’ Transfiguration reminds us. Their experience was confirmed again at the Last Supper, when Jesus told them how he was the way, and the truth, and the life.

Jesus then said this: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him… Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… [And] very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

That Martin perceived his vocation as a physician to be a form of ministry fits well with Jesus’ words in John. For as the Word became flesh in Jesus, so too —through his gift of himself to us— the Word continues to become flesh in us. The Word becomes flesh in our lives and work, as well as in our relationships with each other. As this happens, the Word takes what at first may seem frail and weak, and builds it up into an expression of God’s own shining glory.

In this moment, Martin now knows these things better than we do. He knows how Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. And Martin now sees, in a way that we cannot, how Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and the one who makes all things new. As the Lord attests through the words of Revelation, the dwelling place of God is now among people ~ even among those who do not readily perceive God’s nearness to us. We can journey forward, believing that —for God’s faithful people— life is changed, not ended. We are God’s faithful people. And, just like Martin, our lives have been changed by God’s Holy Spirit. Having been changed, we, too, are now ready to see his glory, and enter into eternity.

For Jesus says to us, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Goes Up Alone Onto a Mountain to Pray. This post is based on my homily for the funeral of Martin Landis, 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.