James Tissot

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.

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 Beauty of the Nativity

 

Christmas celebrates how, through Jesus’ visitation and by his presence within us, our Lord joins us. With him we are changed from all that is merely human, toward being more than simply human. He transforms us beyond the limits of what we presently know. And he fulfills the potential that our loving God has placed within us. This is why we gather to celebrate the Nativity on what is often a day other than Sunday. Because we yearn for more.

St. Francis of Assisi figured this out long ago. In what some mistakenly call the ‘dark ages,’ he perceived a light-filled truth. Blessed Francis figured out that every one of us, educated or uneducated, rich like his father or poor like himself… that every one of us needs something. We need not only to hear The Great Story at some point in our lives. We need to hear The Story over and over again. And not only hear it, but also see it. And when we hear and see the story again and again, its truth has great power to overcome our spiritual deafness and blindness, and soak into our dry hearts and minds. It is to blessed Francis that we owe having nativity scenes in our churches and homes. And it is to Francis that we owe including nativity ‘plays’ in our liturgy at Christmas. Christmas is all about how the great thing that we seek has come near, into our midst, available to our experience.

In the painting above, James Tissot has beautifully captured St. Francis’ insight about the nativity scene. Notice how unearthly light radiates outward from the holy child. At the bidding of angels, lowly shepherds have come looking for him. What joy warms their hearts in this fulfillment of their search ~ the same fulfillment we can find for our own unceasing search. Their joy can be ours, as we reflect on what we hope for by our celebration of Jesus’ birth.

The Great One who was, and is, and is to come, is here! He is here in love because he will always be with us. As the Gospels promise, we find in the Nativity the fulfillment of our abiding human desire ~ our desire for true meaning and purpose, and lasting love. We discover it in God’s self-revealing, and in the manifestation of the Spirit’s presence. Paradoxically, we find God’s presence in the most vulnerable form of human presence ~ in a baby born in the filth of a stable, where animals are brought in from the harsh and inhospitable winter fields around us.

And so, our Christmas discovery begins when we acknowledge that we yearn for more than what we apprehend every day. In the face of Jesus, we meet the fulfillment of our yearning. For in him we find abiding love, true meaning and purpose.

 

This post is based on my homily for Christmas Eve, December 1624 2018, 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 Desert Rest

The apostles have just returned from their mission, into which Jesus had earlier sent them. Naturally, they wanted to tell him everything they had done. Especially since Jesus had sent them out with his own power and authority. Surely, they had much to report. He responds to them by saying, “Come away to a deserted place… and rest a while.”

The wise Gospel teacher, John Shea, suggests that we should not misunderstand Jesus’ invitation to them. It’s not that Jesus was offering them what we would call R&R, or rest and relaxation. Shea helps us see how Jesus was leading them to something more profound. Jesus was inviting the apostles to go deeper with him, into the mystery of his mission. As we have often found, in the biblically sensitive work of the artist James Tissot, the image I share with you above portrays a key moment in Mark’s Gospel. Despite Tissot’s sensitivity, he titled his painting, “Jesus commands the Apostles…” And yet, in Mark’s Gospel, we clearly hear an invitation, rather than a command. Either way, Jesus was urging them to come away ~ a message we can take to heart, as well.

Shea points out two key biblical words in Mark’s story that should catch our attention. Consider first the role of ‘deserted places’ in biblical history. It was in the desert that Israel was brought into covenant with God, when they received the Law at Mt. Sinai. It was in the desert that both Israel and —much later— Jesus, were tested. Whereas Israel failed the test, Jesus prevailed. And it became the doorway to his public ministry, which made manifest God’s Kingdom in a new and personal way. As Jesus himself experienced, the desert was the place where angels ministered to God’s chosen people.

The second key word that Shea points toward is ‘rest,’ also a highly symbolic word. By inviting them to rest, Jesus was not really interrupting what he had earlier sent them to do. Instead, he was giving them an opportunity to fulfill their new vocation, and bring it to completion. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day, God rested. And it was not because God was tired, or somehow in need of restoration, after six days of creating everything. The seventh day represented the sabbath Shalom, the peace that fulfilled of all of God’s creative purposes. And so, by inviting the apostles into a time of rest, Jesus was inviting them to experience the deeper fulness of God’s mission, and its presence within him. This would best happen apart from the pressures and distractions of ongoing ministry.

In the desert, they would discover the beauty of sabbath fulfillment.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 22, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Commands the Apostles to Rest. John Shea is the author of the three volumes titled, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. Here, I reference his comments in the second volume, for Year B.

The Beauty of God’s Beckoning Kingdom

 

Once again, I invite you to join me in some reflective imagining. Doing such helps us live into the Gospels. Stories from Scripture, and the work of many artists, can enable us to engage the Word. So here is our opportunity: We are in Nazareth! Let’s imagine that we are in the little village of Nazareth, in about the year 30 A.D. We are gathered in our local synagogue for worship on the sabbath. And, without any of us expecting it, our young Rabbi with a messianic vocation enters and begins to teach us ~ just as James Tissot portrays in the image above.

Some of us in the synagogue begin to marvel and raise questions about our experience of him. Who is this, we ask. And where did he get this wisdom? After all, he’s from our village… and no one of any account has come out of this place. Don’t we know his family? And aren’t we familiar with his work as a local contractor? So what is he thinking, presuming to teach us, his peers and fellow residents? He then responds to us, sounding more philosophical than angry. He says that ‘wise people are not overlooked, except among those who think they already know them.’ And so he can do no deed of power here, unless perhaps to heal a few needy folks at the margins of our little community.

He looks at us with astonishment. Why? Because, through him, the mystery of God’s Kingdom is being opened before us. And he is beckoning us to enter. Except that we hesitate, and come up with excuses. We find all kinds of reasons why we cannot, or will not, step out of our familiar and largely self-decided assumptions and expectations.

And so, he turns away, and moves on toward a more fruitful field, in which he will plant his tiny seeds of insight. They are like little gleaming pebbles, dropped below the surface of a shallow stream. Unless we notice their glimmering nearness, and reach down to pick them up, they will only tantalize our curiosity. And yet, they 
won’t amount to anything of value until we collect them, and carry them with us. For these are the small smooth stones that have the power to knock down what gets in the way of God’s ongoing mission ~ as we learn from David’s encounter with the Philistine giant, Goliath.

Therefore, if —like some of our fellow villagers— we doubt him… if we hesitate to accept his teaching and overlook what he does, because we discount its apparently human source… we may miss the opportunity to enter, and live into, the beckoning mystery of God’s unfolding Kingdom. This is the Kingdom that is manifest in him, through what he says, and in what he does.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 8, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, titled Jesus Rejected in the Synagogue at Nazareth.

The Beauty of a Gospel Challenge

 

 

Once again, I have gone back to a favorite source for helping us engage in imaginative reflection, through which we might —at least for a moment— feel like we were there, within the story. Through active imagination, we might sense that what happened then and there, can also somehow happen to us now.

James Tissot, who had first been a fashionable society painter, found that his life was turned around by the Jesus story, and then by Jesus himself. And so, he dedicated a good part of the rest of his life to helping us envision what we hear and read in the Gospels. These two images beautifully portray the pivotal moments in two stories ~ or, a story within a story, from Mark’s Gospel.

Look at Jesus walking through a narrow street, heading toward the home of Jairus. A woman raises her hand toward Jesus, in the bustle of a crowd that closely surrounds him. She reaches just to touch the edge of his robe. She wants, as we might put it, a sacrament of his presence.

Who among us has never felt isolated, different from others and, as a result, cut off from them in one way or another? Who has not imagined or experienced social ostracism, seemingly perpetrated by others because we are not like them? Whether rightly or not, we then feel unfit to be with those others, whose company we desire and whose fellowship we hope for. What might change this dynamic? What might transform all these broken or non-existent relationships, which could be so important to us?

Or, look at Jesus, gently reaching down to touch and grasp a girl, whose death has led to vigorous outward mourning. Agonized relatives, and concerned friends, are right at hand, or lurk in the shadows. They want, or at least hope for, a sacrament of Jesus’ presence.

Who among us has never experienced the demise of some aspect of our lives? Who among us has never had a failed dream, a blown opportunity, a bottomed-out investment, whether of ideas and emotions, or of money and time? However these kinds of events may have impacted us, what might help move us forward, and lead us to recover our sense of confidence and efficacy? What might transform how we look at everything, even if our outward circumstances don’t change right away?

Mark’s two stories, about Jairus’ daughter and the woman with an infirmity, are stories about us, just as much as they are about other people from long ago, in faraway place. And they are also stories about how God’s Spirit, through Jesus, can transform us and our lives.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 1, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The two paintings above are by James Tissot; they are titled: The Daughter of Jairus, and The Woman With an Issue of Blood (late 19th century).