06 April 2014

The Sticks & Stones of Passiontide

Doors of St. John’s Baptistery, Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti
Passiontide begins on the Sunday before Palm Sunday, and is the name given to the two weeks leading up to Easter, the latter of which is Holy Week. The final three days of Holy Week (and therefore, Passiontide) are collectively known as the Triduum.  So many names. Such confusion.    

It is difficult for people now to understand the meaning of “passion” as it was used when Passiontide was named. The word today conjures images of a cheap romance novel, or some farcical Italian hunk peddling a new brand of spaghetti sauce. The original definition of the word “passion” stems from something altogether different from its current connotations. Thanks to the Norman invasion, “passion” came to us in English from the Old French, which in turn is rooted in the Latin word for suffering and endurance. The word was planted in the vulgar tongues of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages with reference to the sufferings of Jesus and early Christian martyrs.  It was only in the 16th century that “passion” would come to mean anything more romantic than unmitigated agony.  Cheery stuff, but there it is.

All those dusty centuries ago, Passiontide probably began in Bethany at the home of Mary Magdalene and Lazarus, her brother. The pain and death of Lazarus, like that of our own flesh and blood, are shown to be subservient to the Divine Reality.  Christ the Physician (some might say, “Sorcerer”) raises his friend, and the feast and procession that ensue takes Jesus triumphantly–if only temporarily–into the hearts of the people of Bethany and Jerusalem.

The story of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem astride an ass, making his way through the streets padding atop the soft branches and cloaks of the admiring throng, is recounted in much the same way in each of the gospels: Matthew (21:1-11), Mark (11:1-11), and Luke (19:29-40).  But for us as Johannites, it is equally important to see the distinctive set of events that are described by the community of the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John. 

Well before the narrative of the raising of Lazarus and the festivities which led to Palm Sunday, John describes an argument that took place between the Pharisees and Jesus in the Temple.  In this passage, the authorities accuse Jesus of blasphemy. Indeed, the clerics were so outraged that the gospel describes a rather undignified retreat which Jesus had to make in order to avoid being stoned by them at the end of chapter 8. 

Some detail-oriented readers might recall that this part of John’s gospel is the inspiration for the ancient tradition of covering the images, statues and icons of Christ on Passion Sunday.  The veils are only to be lifted at Mass on Easter Sunday.  Far from blurring the embarrassing episode in the Temple, the universal Church has for centuries on end commemorated the hiding of Jesus at this time in the calendar. In some parishes, this activity has been turned into a chance to involve children, who are often given charge to cover every image they can find.    

But what were the last few words that Jesus said to the Pharisees in the Temple before he had to make a run for it?  What could have offended them more than the many other strange ideas that Jesus had been preaching all that day?  This is what he said right before they picked up their stones:

If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad. (8:54-56)
This scenario has played out in so many lives.  Only the seeker who has known the Divine can understand the full frustration of being questioned by people who are not interested in learning or sharing the experience. The Pharisees and scribes are not curious to know what Jesus meant by “the Light of the world”, because they had a professional reason to find nothing but fault.  This spiritual disconnect must have been profoundly painful for Jesus.  Spirit has been incarnated for this?  To be rejected out of hand, and then stoned by a knot of self-righteous toadies? Perhaps it was really then, in the Temple, and not in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus first realized that people would rather have a sacrifice than enlightenment.  The “society of the spectacle” is not confined to the modern West, as Jesus was painfully made aware.

When we think about the whirlwind of events that would transpire over the next two weeks of Jesus’s life, we cannot help but wince at the ignorance and intolerance of the men in the Temple who picked up stones rather than try to understand.  Passiontide is therefore an appropriate time for us to reflect on the barbarities committed in the name of our religions and ideologies, and the unmerciful attitudes that we ourselves sometimes pose to those who come to us for help and compassion. 

Let us pray that the natural and supernatural pains endured by Christ on earth have forever given us a better pathway to the Light.  We hold in our hands the tools to build the New Jerusalem. In our eyes there is a glimmer of the kingdom which is already present in the hearts of those who follow his example. Let's make that reflection a reality.


25 March 2014

Hail, Full of Grace

Jacopo Tintoretto The Annunciation. 1583-87, Venice
Imagine a young, as yet unwed woman–barely a woman–indeed, a girl by today’s standards, pregnant, afraid and alone at the window sill.  Conjure then the feelings that she must have felt knowing that her life could be on the line if her fiancé chose to turn her away in anger and jealousy.  And yet her doubts, fear and shame are transformed into a radiant acceptance of the life within her.

The Annunciation can be celebrated equally as the angelic announcement of the indwelling Divine to Mary, and the personal realization of the Incarnation of the Spirit in flesh.  These mysterious words: “Hail, full of grace”, whispered from the beautiful lips of the Archangel Gabriel, begin the cycle of redemption.  

The Annunciation that took place through Mary’s window is an ancient reminder to us that the supernatural is the real, and that we must never forget that super-reality exists all around us and within us.  Mary did not merely become pregnant with Jesus who would become the Christ; she is the embodied spirit of the new Eve who gave birth to the age of grace. Mary is the mother of all mothers whose flesh and blood becomes the vehicle for a precious, if tiny shard of the Divine. 


19 March 2014

St. Joseph: Service as Spiritual Practice

Joseph is not a flashy saint; no miracles, no rapturous ecstasy of divine revelation, no wondrous oration, and no martyrdom.  This lack of sparkle is one of the reasons why I think that he rests in an extraordinarily important position among the saintly host to whom we look for inspiration, refuge and strength.
José de Ribera, San José y el Niño Jesús, 1632

Joseph was by most accounts a relatively simple man, a person like most of us.  He is known for his decency, compassion, and trust, which enabled him to accept his wife, the Blessed Mother, even as she carried a child which was not his own.   

As patron of the Church, fathers, immigrants, workers, carpenters, against doubt and hesitation, and of a happy death, St. Joseph reflects the sacredness of our daily tasks, no matter what we do for a living.

This gentle craftsman provides us with a spiritual image that is all the more beautiful for its commonness and its simplicity. His devotion to the love of his life, like his care for the infant Jesus on the Flight into Egypt, paints for us an enduring portrait of a man who does great things through the little mindful actions of his life. Joseph’s service to his family forms the core of his spiritual practice.

If we could take only one lesson from the foster-father of the Holy Child, it might be as beautifully simple as his own role in the gospel narratives.  Against all the reasons we can find to harden our hearts towards others, do as Joseph did. Trust, love, and nurture the Divine in everyone you meet and in everything you do.  We may not comprehend how much our humble service may change the course of history, but through St. Joseph, we have a pretty good guess.