James Tissot

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.

 

 

His Continuing Mission

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Christ Sending Out the Seventy Disciples, Two By Two. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 7, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of a Map and a Compass

 

 

Two college students drive into the mountains for a weekend hiking trip. Perhaps because they were up late writing term papers the night before, both of them are tired. During the long afternoon drive, even cups of coffee fail to keep them fully alert. As the road winds in and out of canyons, rising rock walls deflect the low sun and create deep shadows. Coming around one particularly sharp turn in a switch-back, the SUV skids on gravel, and the vehicle veers off the road. Down an embankment they slide, and slam into a tree. Suddenly everything is white and dusty – the airbags have exploded, saving them from serious injury.

Now they have a real problem. They are in a remote area where cell phones don’t work; the SUV is ruined; and it’s getting dark. Of course, they could just stay where they are, surviving on their packed food and water, and could sleep in what’s left of their vehicle. But neither of them wants to do that. The alternative is to walk out, and try to find a way back to a main road. Aside from food and bottled water they stuff into their day-packs, they have two things that can help them. They have an accurate map, and a working compass, the right tools for them to hike out safely.

But this is where things go from bad to worse. In this moment, each of them has a strong idea about the right way out of this remote place. The problem is, they do not agree about the way forward. Being tired and stressed, and having contrasting personalities, they respond to their situation in very different ways. As a result, they head off in separate directions, one with the map, the other holding the compass.

Initially, this seems like a sensible solution for two people who disagree about their predicament. But the decision proves near-fatal for both of them. Of course, a good map and a working compass are valuable in a situation like this. But, paradoxically, neither tool is of real use without the other. This is why: A good map shows where everything is, including ways in and out of the area. But it does not tell you where you should go. Whereas a working compass always points to magnetic north, and therefore provides direction. But it won’t tell you where you are.

Most of all, refusing collaboration with the other person reading the map or holding the compass diminishes each of their prospects. For both of them are likely to remain lost while, on their own, trying to interpret what can be learned from a map or a compass.

At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples something like a map, a map formed by the memory of his sayings and his works. He who is The Way, gives them a map of The Way. This map reminds them of their relationship with him, and of his relationship with what God has been doing through both him and them. Their challenge is to connect this map of his sayings and works, with the unfamiliar terrain of the new world around them.

But as he has promised, Jesus also gives his disciples something like a compass, which is the guiding Holy Spirit, who always points in the same unwavering and godly direction. Like a compass, the Holy Spirit will help them follow a straight path. But, they still need to know The Way on which they are to head, and the route they need to follow.

And so, like them, we need to rely upon the teaching Scriptures, as well as upon the guiding Holy Spirit, in order to find our way forward in life. For Jesus has given us two intertwined and inseparable gifts that come together as one: this is ‘the Scripture-shaped Tradition of Spirit-guided reasoning.’

 

The images above are James Tissot’s paintings, The Last Sermon of our Lord, and The Last Supper. This post is based on my homily for Easter 6, May 26, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Belief Enables Perception

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

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.

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.