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.

The Unveiling of Glory

 

 

According to Exodus, Moses started putting a veil over his face when he would come down the mountain to speak to his fellow-Israelites. But he would not wear the veil when he talked with God, up above. So, in this part of Exodus, the veil provided protection. It would protect those who were unused to, or unprepared for, the power of God’s immediate presence. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, extends and also alters this idea of the veil. Instead of it being a means to protect God’s people from a direct encounter with divine glory, the veil has become in Paul’s letter a kind of impediment. When our hearts and minds are not open to God, nor sensitive to God’s power, we become hardened. We become hardened in such a way that our hearts and minds are veiled, preventing us from perceiving God’s glory.

But Christ has set aside this veil. As a result, “all of us, with unveiled faces, {see} the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.” And we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

The Transfiguration of Jesus is all about the unveiling of God’s glory. Jesus takes Peter, John and James up with him on a mountain to pray. While he is praying, the appearance of his face changes, as does his clothing. In contrast with the Exodus and Pauline images of light reflecting off a surface, Luke presents God’s glory as coming from within Jesus. In other words, his is a radiating glory rather than a reflected one. Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah, who appear with him, appear in his glory. This may mean that Jesus has shared his glory with them in a way that prefigures what he will share with all of his followers.

This should lead us to ask a good question: If we feel like there is a veil between us and the divine presence, where does this veil lie? Does God ‘hide’ behind a veil, either to protect us, or challenge us? Or is the veil within ourselves? Is it formed by our spiritual blindness and lack of openness to the glory imparted by the Spirit? Paul suggests that our experience may be like that of the earlier Israelites, for whom hard-heartedness caused them to be blind to the bright light of God’s glorious presence, whether in Moses’ face or when reading and hearing the Law. Hard-heartedness can be equally blinding for us, veiling the glory that is all around us.

And where, according to Paul, do we find this glory? We find it in the faces of everyone who has been open to God’s transforming Holy Spirit. In other words, we find it in each other, as well as in ourselves. For this reason it can be like looking in a mirror, as the glory that we will perceive in others is the same glory that they can perceive within us.

 

The paintings above are James Tissot’s, Moses and the Ten Commandments, and The Transfiguration. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, March 3, 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.

More On the Beauty of Nothing

 

As we all know, ashes are the end result of the process of burning. When all the energy has been released from something by burning it, all that remains are ashes, ready to be thrown out. Ashes are like dust, lifeless, inert, and of no value. Yet ashes remind us of the dust which God embraced and used in Creation. Taking up the dust of the ground and fashioning it into human form, God breathed the Holy Spirit into it, making us into God’s own image and likeness. In other words, God took nothing and made something out of it. The starting point for God’s handiwork was, and always is, nothing. Only God makes something out of nothing. Which is why the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, is about nothing. For without God, every thing is as nothing.

Especially because of our focus on ashes in the liturgy of the day, as well as upon our sin and unworthiness, Ash Wednesday can feel gloomy. And our worship can seem a sad but necessary duty before we can move on to happier observances. But actually, Ash Wednesday ought to be the happiest day of the year if only we would approach it rightly. If only we could admit the nothingness of so much of our lives! We would then have all the more to turn over to God. For God is a master at taking nothing and making something out of it. And, by receiving a cross-shaped smudge of ashes, we are reminded that God finds and embraces our nothingness.

What do I mean by this? Well, consider all the things that get us down when we think of them… things like the bad choices we have made; relationships we have made difficult; tasks at which we have failed; and responsibilities we have shirked. These are all things that can just seem like nothing. Yet, they are the very things we can lift up and turn over to God, — especially because we can’t make anything of them.

All these “nothings” are like ashes or dust. Dust and ashes are the building blocks of God’s Creation. And so, they are also the building blocks of God’s Redemptive work. The next time we are tempted to say about something we have done, or are doing, “O, it’s really nothing,” let’s remember what God can do with ‘nothing.’ The journey we begin on Ash Wednesday is a ‘reverse-logic’ journey. In the church’s calendar, we go from our starting point with ashes, toward the endpoint of pentecostal fire. When we turn it over to God, the Holy Spirit takes the ashen nothingness of our lives and transforms it into the light of the world. Think about how much nothingness we can give to God, to create and work with!

 

The painting above is James Tissot’s, God Creating the World. This post is based on my homily for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 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.

Holding History in Two Hands

 

As Joseph speaks to his surprised and dismayed brothers, he tries to overcome their fear and embarrassment. They are focused on the past, on what happened before, and their own role in causing great misfortune to fall upon Joseph’s head. While Joseph is focused on the future, and the purpose and end toward which God is surprisingly pulling things along.

As we notice this difference between what Joseph and his brothers are looking at, we receive an insight. It comes to us from Aristotle, among others, and it concerns how we use the word ’cause.’ Sometimes —maybe even often— we focus only on the starting cause which got some bad things going. When we do, we overlook the greater importance of the result cause, the good end toward which God may be leading us. This is what Joseph wants his brothers to see.

And just as there is no single way to read a biblical story, there is no single way to ‘read’ a painting. This truism applies not only to the Joseph cycle of stories from Genesis. It applies equally to James Tissot’s painting of the moment when Joseph Makes Himself Known to His Brothers. Joseph appears in the finery of an Egyptian prince, just as Moses may later have appeared. At first, his brothers don’t recognize him. Not only because of the context, but also since it has been years since they have seen him.

At the center of the Genesis Joseph-in-Egypt stories, and of Tissot’s painting, is a paradox that lies at the heart of all human life: consciously or not, human beings bring evil upon one another. And so, the question arises ~ where is God in all this? Does God cause, and therefore bring about the trouble that then follows? Or, without necessarily making it happen, didn’t God know all along where things would head, and that they would surely head toward something good? Either way, isn’t God directly involved in the moment by moment way we wrestle with these and other variables? Isn’t God always an overseeing and yet intimate companion, especially as we face serious and highly consequential decisions?

Let’s remember the earlier Genesis story about Joseph’s father, Jacob. And how Jacob was distressed in the wilderness concerning his brother Esau. Jacob wondered whether Esau was potentially once again a friend, or indeed, whether he was still his adversary. Jacob’s wrestling match with God’s angel was all about this question. Likewise, as I wrestle in prayer with big and troubling decisions, I can ask God a similar question: Are you my friend? Or are you also my ‘adversary?’ Either way, if we are looking to blame and assign responsibility, how much are we willing to ascribe to the divine ‘hand’? For God seems to be in control of all that happens. Or, at least, God lets whatever happens, happen. When considering bad events, it is human nature to wonder who caused them, especially with an eye to blame. And, in the process, it is also fallen human nature to overlook the good end toward which bad events might be leading us. For there may also be a good end toward which God is pulling us forward.

 

The painting above is James Tissot’s, Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, February 3, 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 Toward Which We Live

 

As Luke presents the first and great example of Jesus’ teaching, the Lord addresses his listeners after praying all night ~ the same night of prayer preceding his choice of the Twelve. Luke therefore puts Jesus’ Beatitudes in a significant context. In contrast to Matthew’s sermon on the mount, Luke portrays Jesus as speaking on a plain, with a further notable difference. In Luke, Jesus directs his words to his twelve newly designated apostles as well as to the wider community of disciples that he is gathering. In other words, in Luke, Jesus is forming and encouraging a community of disciples, who will follow him in how they live, as well as preserve his teaching.

This question can help us hear Luke’s Beatitudes: Toward what do we live? For we all live toward something! To one degree or another, we all start by living toward ourselves. All too easily, we arrive at a false conclusion ~ that the best way of living is to be rich, always having plenty to eat, with a life that is unburdened by cares and full of pleasurable entertainment. Having all these things, we also expect to have the positive regard of our neighbors and acquaintances. Whether consciously or not, these are the features of the life toward which most of us live. And that toward which we live, therefore, also shapes how we live.

Jesus’ beatitudes are the inverse of the woes he describes. Blessed are the poor, and those who are hungry. Blessed are those who weep, and those who are hated and excluded ~ all on account of the one who reveals what it means to be truly human. These indications of blessedness are about what it means to be human in the way that God intends for us to be. And they exemplify what it means to be made in the beauty of God’s image. This is because people who are poor, hungry and who weep tend to live toward God, and toward the beauty of God’s power, rather than toward themselves. They become like trees planted by streams of water.

This helps us appreciate something that Luke observes in the same context ~ that all in the crowd were trying to touch Jesus, “for power came out from him and healed all of them.” Aware of their needs, people had come out to hear him and be physically healed, and cured of their unclean spirits. The key was not simply their need, but more importantly their awareness of their need. In Jesus’ view, we are blessed when are aware of our need for transformation toward the beauty of wholeness and flourishing.

 

The painting above is James Tissot’s, Jesus Teaches By the Sea. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, February 3, 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.

Caught By the Beauty of the Word

 

James Tissot’s painting of the great draught of fish portrays an early miracle in Luke’s Gospel. Unlike Jesus’ prior acts of exorcism and physical healing, we may feel more able to relate to this story. Perhaps it’s less difficult to imagine, and more explainable in terms of timing and old-fashioned luck. But this is just the point. Luke’s story is not about fishing. Nor is it about how good fortune can change our attitude. Instead, Luke tells this story because of its powerful metaphorical significance, which we need to ‘unfold.’

Jesus encounters a crowd at the edge of the sea. Luke describes the people as eager to hear the word of God. Jesus begins teaching them and a group of fishermen by the shore. But though they listen, nothing seems to sink in until some of them actively participate in what he is teaching. The spiritual writer, John Shea, helps us appreciate the heart of this story ~ that listening to the Word is not enough in itself. And the power of the Word is not unleashed until we are caught by it. The Word that Jesus shares is not just a bunch of rules, or doctrine to be memorized. He teaches so as to bring light to darkness, and life to what has died. And he does this precisely to illumine darkened hearts and minds, and motivate faltering willfulness. All this, so that people might actually change how they live. John Shea’s special insight is this: that “when fish are caught, they move from the darkness beneath the sea, into” the light above. Shea’s observation becomes all the more meaningful when we recall that the ancient secret symbol for Christians and churches was a fish.

This is symbolism that we should want to recover. Particularly if we remember Israel’s historic ambivalence about the sea, and its depths. The story of Jonah comes to mind, and the beautiful poetry of the second chapter. There, Jonah gives voice to the experience of being trapped in the depths of the ocean among the kelp and the weeds. For a land-based people, who spent long periods as nomadic shepherds, the sea was the worst place where Israelites might end up. Remember the Exodus, and how God’s people marveled at the way the “fathomless deep” overwhelmed their enemies, who “sank into the depths like a stone.” This is also why the Gospel ‘calming of the storm’ episodes are so memorable. For Jesus exhibits the power of God to tame the most fearful aspects of nature, and bring order out of watery chaos.

Sensitive to the ‘depths’ of this symbolism, we are more likely to be ‘caught by the Word.’

 

I would like to acknowledge my dependence upon John Shea’s commentary for many of the insights I offer here (see his book, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Luke, Year C).

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, February 3, 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 Paradoxical Beauty in Being Called

We might assume that, ‘in a perfect world,’ God’s call only leads to good things, like harmony, peace and goodwill. But Scripture and Christian history suggest otherwise! In our world, at least initially, God’s call sometimes leads to other things like confusion or anxiety, through which the Spirit’s true peace may emerge. God’s call can disrupt life as we know it now, allowing patterns of grace to replace what is familiar. And God’s call can also leave us feeling challenged rather than affirmed. Here is the point: in situations like these, God’s purpose is not to bring confusion or disruption, even if it brings challenge. God’s purpose is to further our growth and fulfillment. This is why we pay attention to how the community hears a call just as much as we attend to how individuals hear it. Since hearing a call can be challenging, we seek to do this kind of ‘Spirit-listening’ in community ~ and for the sake of community.

Early in Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks in his hometown synagogue. As he does, he reveals something profound about his own call, which points to the way that God is calling his Nazareth community. At first, Jesus’ former neighbors praise him, expressing marvel at his words and deeds. But when they discern how his prophetic ministry has expansive implications, rather than being narrowly focused on benefits for them, everything changes. After praising him, they lead him to the brow of a hill so they can kill him! Just as the leaders of Jerusalem wanted to do to God’s prophet, Jeremiah, some 500 years earlier.

Paradox abounds in this story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. His teaching and works of healing reveal that he is filled with the power of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit can do anything. Except that God gives us the curious freedom to refuse the Spirit’s power. Sometimes we refuse this power overtly, especially when we feel like God is asking us to do something difficult or uncomfortable. And sometimes we refuse this power through subtle denial, by closing our hearts and minds to new possibilities toward which God is leading us. The folks in Nazareth want their hometown wonderworker to stay ‘local,’ and bring focused blessings upon them. They refuse to see how Jesus’ vocation exceeds the limited parameters they allow for him, as well as for themselves.

We may not share Jeremiah’s particular vocation to be a prophet. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t received a vocation, a calling. For we are all called! We are called to participate together in God’s Word, as the Spirit-led community. We are called to flourish together within our Lord’s Body. And, we are called to share his holy life with those who have not yet experienced it. These things can be hard to do. But God always give us the grace and strength to respond to the Spirit’s call. For, as a community, we have been called!

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, February 3, 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.

Beauty in the Fullness of Light

The Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, teaches us that we all have a natural biological aspect to our identity. And that each of us also has a supernatural, baptismal or church aspect to our identity. So, do we privilege one or the other of these two aspects of who we are?

On one hand, though we have the same biophysical human-nature, there are absolutely differentiating characteristics between us. We have unique fingerprints; our DNA profile marks us as different from every other person; and new facial recognition technology depends upon slight but importantly distinguishable features that set us apart from all others. These things characterize the natural biological aspect of our identity.

At the same time, though we all have unique and different gifts and ministries (as Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians), we have the same baptismal church identity. We are reminded of this every time we celebrate the rite of Baptism. Quoting Paul in Ephesians, we begin the liturgy by saying, “There is one Body and one Spirit; There is one hope in God’s call to us; One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; One God and Father of all.”

These phrases tell us that the defining characteristic of the Church is our oneness in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. We can treasure all the unique ways we differ from one another, and the blessings these differences may bring. But with respect to our baptismal church identity, what we share in common has primacy. Individually, we have been given one or more of what Paul describes as lesser gifts, such as prophecy, teaching, healing, leadership and tongues. But he urges us to strive for what he calls the greater gifts, which turn out to be Faith, Hope and Charitable Love, each of which is given by the Holy Spirit for the common good.

And so, with respect to natural created goods, differences and diversity provide appreciable delight, and enrichment. But with respect to supernatural gifts opened to us by Baptism, unity and commonality best express our oneness in Christ.

Light is a frequent biblical metaphor for the gift of God’s presence, especially in John’s Gospel. And the science of light has something to teach us about the Church. Painters know that with pigments in paint, white represents the absence of color, or the absence of difference. But with light, a true white light represents the spectrum of all colors. This is not due to the quality of any single color, but precisely because of the unity of all colors. When it comes to light, if we see individual colors we are only seeing partial aspects of the whole! This gives us insight about the Church. In order to see the whole, we must respect the presence of the parts. And in attending to the parts, we must also respect the unity and oneness that God seeks to form and nurture between us. The ark had the whole spectrum of animals within it. And our ark, the Church, holds and carries all of us!

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, January 27, 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.