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Belief Enables Perception

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Beauty of Divine Energy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Beauty of His Continuing Presence

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Through the Waters of Death…

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Body We Have Embraced

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Entering the Beautiful City

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Beautifully Hospitable Dinner at Bethany

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Beauty of Our Return

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Beauty of an Invitation

 

 

 

 

These four Annunciation paintings can help us grow into the reality of our response to the embodied and loving Word of God. I have chosen them in relation to the call we have accepted in Baptism. And so I focus on four moments recorded by, or implied within, Like’s Gospel account of the Annunciation to Mary. The four moments are these: the experience of being Apprehensive; the prompted experience of being Introspective; our chosen response in then being Attentive; and finally, God’s desire for us to be Accepting with joy.

I remember when the call to accept Baptism came to me. I was a secular-minded art student, and not-very-interested in acknowledging any form of ‘lordship’ other than my own. But my reaction and perceptions then were certainly not unique to me. Indeed, I have come to see how my at first halting and reluctant response to God’s gracious invitation was not distinctive at all. A great insight about sin is that —for us— our sins are never very original! Likewise, in responding to grace, none of us is ever alone on our path as we engage God’s call. Our first reaction as adults, to a consciously-perceived divine overture, is often apprehensiveness. We are apprehensive about losing our preferred autonomy, and having our usual safe boundaries crossed. Simone Martini’s Annunciation beautifully captures this moment. Like Mary, we ask: ‘What is this Word that comes to me? What is this message? What is its import, especially in terms of what may be expected of me?’ Better be safe than sorry is often our reaction, not only to fallen human invitations, but also to God’s beautiful holy beckoning.

We have become hardened to glimpses of light, and to touches of grace. And so, second, if we aren’t so hardened, we may be open at least to ponder a facet or two of God’s loving invitation coming to us. This creates an opportunity for introspection, a moment well-expressed in Rossetti’s Annunciation. And to the extent that we are open, our hearts and minds are hit by a divine initiative that could not possibly have been expected. Feeling its impact, we must look within. Do I stand on my own? Am I my own Lord? Can I determine my future, however limited or large? Or, have I met my match? And… if so, how do I respond rightly. This is the moment of introspection, writ large.

Third, if our Lord has managed to capture our attention, are we open? Are we willing to be vulnerable to the divine presence? Every Christian, and especially every baptized adult must ask her or himself this question. Skogrand’s Bedsit Annunciation provides an evocative image of the moment. Our old Episcopalian assumptions about automatic Baptism soon after birth, with Confirmation expected around age 12 or 13, have diminished the spiritual life of our churches, as well as our experience of the sacraments. Baptism, Confirmation and also Ordination, are not station-markers. They do not provide us with graduation certificates exempting us from further formation, or from continuing repentance, renewal and transformation. And so, we must remain attentive!

Yet, to be dutifully and spiritually attentive to divine initiatives, and God’s personal calling in our lives, is not enough. To be alive in Christ is something rather different from sitting in the audience at a public event. Our Lord challenges us to be more than attentive, and more than enthusiastically approving of what we behold around us. We are, indeed, called to be engaged —engaged so that we are touched by joy— and not simply persons who respond with obedience. The Jesus who comes to us personally and in community is the Jesus who summons our highest and best response. El Greco’s Annunciation captures this truth: We respond best when joyfully we accept abounding grace, in all its beauty.

 

This post is based upon my homily offered in honor of our seminarian, Kellan Day, and her ordination to the diaconate. The four images above are these: Simone Martini, Annunciation; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Annunciation; Trygve Skogrand, Bedsit Annunciation; El Greco, Annunciation. My ordination homily may 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.

God’s Promising Presence

 

If you have ever spent time in the desert southwest, you know how much of the region seems touched by transcendence. From the pueblos of New Mexico to the canyon lands of Arizona, people for centuries have seen the region as a ‘holy land.’ It’s what some call “a thin place” – a location where the imagined boundary between the material and the spiritual disappears. It is a region of profound natural beauty, high thin air, and a history of mystical religion. For many, the southwest is full of numinous places where God feels very near.

Of course, God is everywhere. But there are sacred places on this earth where God seems especially present, especially real. For me, the Grand Canyon forms a natural sanctuary, where Spirit graces —and permeates— everything. The amazing darkness of Canyon nights reveal more stars than you ever thought could exist. And Canyon sunrises illumine an immense range of textures and subtle colors splayed over peaks and gorges. The Psalmist’s words come to mind: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.” The Canyon rim provides an evocative place to pray the Daily Office – perfect for the words of the Venite: “In his hand are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have molded the dry land. Come, let us bow down… before the Lord our Maker.”

Three Genesis stories involving God’s promises to Abram (in chapters 12, 15 & 17) prompt me to think of places like the Grand Canyon, in relation to the covenant God makes with him and his descendants. Not yet named Abraham, he has been called from his homeland, and has just arrived in the new region God has promised him. It is night. And Abram is in a tent, out in the midst of a spiritually-charged wilderness. Aided by James Tissot’s Abram paintings, we can imagine how the enfolding darkness heightens Abram’s sensitivity to what is around him — the voices of nocturnal animals and birds; the gentle stirring of a breeze through the scrub oaks; and the sound of a twig brushing up against the side of the tent. God comes to him in a vision, and speaks to him in an audible voice: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am giving you a great reward.” Abram does not seem to notice that God’s nearness, God’s self‐revelation, is itself the great gift! Instead, his mind leaps from presence to absence. Like we so often do, he focuses on what is not, rather than on what is. Yet, God is right there before him! The Lord says to him, “I am here, and I will provide for you!”

Though God has made three profound promises to him, Abram dwells on just one of them. The thing he wants most of all, he is afraid he’ll never get — a son, and descendants to follow. So God calls Abram out of the tent, and gently challenges him. He tells him to look up into the dark sky, filled with a myriad of bright lights. “Count the stars if you can,” says God. “For as many stars as there are in the sky – that is how many descendants you will have.” Through him and his descendants a blessing has come to the whole world.

 

The painting above is James Tissot’s, God’s Promise to Abram, one of his three paintings depicting the three Covenant-promise events recorded in Genesis 12, 15 and 17. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, March 17, 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.