Peter (Canisius) Winfred (Boniface) Koenig

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.

The Beauty of Cana’s Living Water

 

In so many paintings depicting the Wedding at Cana story, the astonishing lavishness of what Jesus provides is diminished ~ especially when set side-by-side with the portrayal of what the wedding hosts provide. We miss seeing the heart of this story ~ that through Jesus, the abundance of divine glory comes into a world colored by human scarcity. For he is the true ‘host’ even if, at first, his abundant gifts seem hidden. Peter Koenig’s larger painting, of which this is only a portion, captures all this beautifully. Here, we see another section of it, which obviously depicts the Cana theme.

As we have previously noticed, Koenig’s painting is profoundly biblical while not being literal. For he is faithful to John’s highly symbolic and mystical, rather than literal, approach. And so, though we see the stone water jars mentioned by John, we find Jesus and his mother portrayed in a more contemporary setting, complete with a modern-looking table and wine glasses. Once again, we need to ‘read’ the symbolic imagery to grasp the fuller significance of what both John’s Gospel and Peter Koenig’s painting offer to us.

The center of Koenig’s larger painting portrays a vision of the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down from heaven (for a more complete view, see the prior post, below). This image follows what we find described in the Book of Revelation. This New Jerusalem becomes God’s dwelling place among God’s people. And at its center is the enthroned Lamb, with his ‘bride’ the Church at his side. From the Lamb’s side comes the water of life, pouring into the fallen but being redeemed world. The cleansing and purifying water of life fills the jars, as well as provides the context for Baptism. And as Peter Koenig mystically portrays, this water then becomes the very good wine which is served at the wedding feast.

Revelation also speaks of the marriage supper of the Lamb, where saints and martyrs join him in the heavenly realm. Koenig portrays the company of these holy ones standing before and around the throne, apparently bearing gifts. If you look closely, you will see that they are carrying the instruments of their martyrdom, while one of them leads what surely represents a colosseum lion. In several places in the painting, we see what Revelation refers to as the tree of life standing near them and near the gushing living water. For those who have died to the powers of this world are alive to the power of the next.

Among so many paintings representing the Cana story, this may be among the most faithful to what John wants us to see, and to believe. And John’s Cana story, like the whole of his Gospel, is about the wedding of the human and the divine, in Jesus.

 

This detail of Peter Koenig’s larger painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here).  This post is based on my homily for Sunday, January 20, 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 Epiphany

 

Here we see Peter Koenig’s evocative depiction of The Magi offering gifts to the holy child. The artist is a contemporary Roman Catholic painter, many of whose religious paintings are displayed within a church located in Northamptonshire, England. It’s not far from the parish where Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child is situated, the sculpture we viewed in the prior post. Though Koenig often depicts biblical figures in contemporary settings, this painting of the Magi worshipping the Christ Child is both traditional and also Byzantine in style. As in much of his work, recognizable elements of the Gospel story are intertwined with highly symbolic biblical imagery. By ‘reading’ some of the imagery Peter Koenig shares with us, his painting enriches our celebration of the Epiphany, and our appreciation for its greater meaning in our lives.

Along with obvious features in the Gospel narratives, Peter Koenig’s painting employs other biblical imagery symbolizing the broader significance of the event that is portrayed. Right away we notice the large and rough wooden cross, draped with an abundantly grape-bearing vine. The cross as an instrument of death became the fruitful tree of life, and a source of what we receive in the cup of the New Covenant. As a result, the Holy One who is worshipped is the Vine, to whom we become connected as branches.

Employing this kind of symbolism, Nativity scenes often include passion flowers and lilies, associated with our Lord’s death and resurrection. Peter Koenig’s painting has other evident suggestions of Jesus’ destined saving work. The large and open stone square represents the door of our Lord’s tomb, along with its round stone cover, rolled aside by his resurrection. In fulfillment of the Genesis promise to Eve, her counterpoint, Mary, is shown treading upon the serpent whom we associate with the cause of our suffering and death. Mary’s tunic is turquoise, that lovely mix of blue and green. Here in the clothing of the mother of new life, ‘Marian blue’ is blended with the color we associate with life in the natural world, the greenery of trees and shrubs.

Another symbol regarding the vocation of the holy child is the way in which he is clothed. Notice that he is covered by strips of cloth, wrapped around his body, just as his body is later prepared for burial. And in each of his hands, we see him grasp a nail spike. The band of cloth wrapped around his shoulders suggests the mantle or yoke of which he later speaks, and which we find represented in the stoles that deacons and priests wear in the liturgy.

The three differing cupolas of the very Russian-looking church surely represent the Trinitarian being of God, and its significance for our redemption. Another recognizable image, the wine jar in the lower right corner, stems from how this picture is part of a much larger triptych. The complete work depicts several Christmas and Epiphany themes ~ not only the Magi’s visit, but also the wedding at Cana and the Baptism of Jesus, along with the martyrdom of St. Stephen.

In addition, the shells on the foreground suggest the seaside, and may symbolize the liminal shoreline between this realm and the greater life beyond. The scallop shell is associated with St. James, who along with his fisherman brother, John, was one of our Lord’s first disciples. The shell has an ancient pre-Christian association with death and rebirth, as well as our journey into the next life for which we hope. We often use a scallop shell to scoop the water at Baptism. And in the background of this painting, we find suggestions of the harsh and inhospitable aspects of the fallen world, represented both by inanimate stone as well as glacial mountains of ice and snow. The tree of life stands out all the more against this backdrop.

 

Peter Koenig’s painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here).  This post is based on my homily for The Epiphany, January 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.