Johan's Blog

Unlikely Pietá

Pietá by Steve Olson
Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Pietá by Steve Olson
Art is of the greatest importance for the mission of our church. Art, of course is essential to the celebration of the liturgy. In addition, art tells the story of our faith. Art soothes our restless souls. And art invites us to face the ever-pressing questions about our faith, our society and our very selves. The ultimate goal of the use of music, art and architecture by the church is the ultimate goal of the church herself, namely that we become more and more like Christ in everything we do.

As a result, we take the arts very seriously both within the liturgy and outside the liturgy. That is why we opened our Art Gallery 15 years ago, under the protection of Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope John XXIII. Local artists as well as national and international artists have exhibited in our Gallery. We have presented art in practically every medium and from every continent. We have mostly exhibited Christian art but have also have hosted interfaith exhibits and have ventured into the broader Sacred Art realm. 

Though each of our artists deserves to be written about I selected just one, Steve Olson whom I believe to be representative of all artists who have exhibited in our Gallery. Steve is a local artist with a national following. His work, though not always easy is strong and purposeful. It reveals his search for answers to the more difficult questions of life, and even life itself. John’s work commands your attention and when you finally can pry yourself away it remains with you and calls you back, over and over again. It is not the kind of art you see and promptly forget about. It is the kind of art that stays with you forever.

I clearly remember the moment I encountered the work of art by Steve that is depicted above this text. It has not let go of me since and in return, I have not let go of it either. The colors, the shapes, the textures and the intriguing way in which John made the heads and bodies interchangeable commanded my attention. Even today, 10 years later I cannot walk by it without stopping and pondering its meaning.
When I first saw the work I immediately thought of it as a Pietá, disregarding what John’s intentions might have been. The word Pietá comes from the Latin Pietas which was used in the Roman Empire to refer to “dutiful conduct” toward the Gods. Our word piety is clearly derived from this. The most famous Pietá is undoubtedly the one in St. Peter’s Basilica, carved by the young Michelangelo (1498-1499). In this masterpiece Michelangelo shows a young and serene Mary holding the body of Jesus which does not seem tormented but rather given in abandonment to God. Jesus accepted death as the ultimate consequence of his mission. In other words this Pietá truly reflects Jesus’ pietas or “dutiful conduct” toward God.

Throughout the centuries, artists have created Pietás inspired by their own age. Some renditions are very serene while others, including some later versions by Michelangelo reveal more of the pain suffered both by Mary and Jesus. Some renditions do not even show Mary and Jesus but rather depict unnamed people who like Jesus and Mary fulfilled their pietas or their “duty to God.” 

Olson’s Pietá depicts two unnamed people who hold one another. By making the heads and bodies interchangeable he suggests that as humans we take turns in supporting and being supported. Like Michelangelo’s first Pietá, Olson’s Pietá  is not really about pain and sorrow, but rather emphasizes our pietas or our “dutiful service” to God. Like Michelangelo’s Pietá, Olson’s Pietá is not about the underlying division and discord, but rather about support, sustenance and in the end about salvation or eternal life.

The Baptism of the Lord

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and thus the Christmas season comes to an end. This would probably come as a surprise to many people as Christmas outside the church has been forcibly erased from our memories with the red and green of Christmas gradually being replaced by the red-only of the next commercial holiday, St. Valentine. In the church, though, the evergreens still stand and the poinsettias, though visibly tired persist.

The two main liturgical celebrations of the church: Christmas and Easter have a time of preparation, respectively Advent and Lent and a time of celebration, respectively Christmastide and Eastertide. The Christmas season is punctuated by a number of liturgical celebrations, in chronological succession: the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year unless January 1st falls on a Sunday when it is celebrated on December 30th; the solemnity of the Mother of God on January 1st; the solemnity of the Epiphany mostly observed on the Sunday between January 2 and 8; and the feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany unless Epiphany falls on January 7 or 8 when the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the next day. 

The more ancient of these celebrations, namely Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, together with the Birth of the Lord were originally celebrated as one big celebration of the Epiphany of God in Jesus Christ on January 6. This unified feast predates the separate celebration of Christmas on December 25. There is evidence of the celebration of the Epiphany by the end of the second century, while the earliest known reference to Christmas is no older than 354 AD. 
The word Epiphany is the English transliteration of the Greek Epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, and manifestation.   The feast of the epiphany is thus the feast of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It was also known as the Theophany or Theophaneia in Greek, meaning the revelation or appearance of God. 

The original feast of the Epiphany celebrated the four major epiphanic moments in the life of Jesus all bundled in one. The first epiphany being the revelation of Jesus as God to Israel symbolized by the announcement to the shepherds which we now celebrate on Christmas. The second is the revelation of Jesus as God to the gentiles symbolized by the Magi which is celebrated on Epiphany in the churches of the west. The third is the revelation of God as the Trinity which is now celebrated on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The fourth major revelation is God’s desire to make all things new which happened at Cana when Jesus changed water into wine. Though not accorded its own feast, the reading recounting this event is  now read on the Sunday after Baptism of the Lord during year C, thus in close proximity to the other three celebrations.

The main theological reason why these epiphanic moments are now spread out over several celebrations is due to the importance of each one of them in its own right.  The goal of each celebration  is twofold: first we celebrate each epiphany so we come to know God better and second we celebrate each epiphany so we may in turn lead lives that reveal God to the world.

As we conclude the rich celebration of the Christmas season let us re-commit ourselves to reveal to the world in deed and in word what has been revealed to us. May each epiphany of God inspire us to become ourselves an epiphany of God to the world in turn.

The Basilica of Saint Mary has a magnificent set of bronze doors. Mgr. Reardon commissioned them in the 1950s to replace the original wooden doors. They are grand and shiny and to most, they are inviting. 

All kinds of people make their way through those doors. They vary in race and in age, in social status and sometimes in creed. Some people almost run up the majestic stairs to fling open the grand doors and bask in the beauty of the building. Others move slowly, bent under the weight of many burdens. They hesitantly open the heavy doors and almost sneak inside. 

Having passed through the doors some people simply pause in awe after releasing an audible gasp. Others walk a familiar path to a beloved shrine where they light a candle and kneel down in silent prayer. Some people slide into a pew, pull down their hood and take a nap. Some come here to hide from the cold, or even to hide from the world. The Basilica doors indeed are a great access point to the building. 

Yet, more importantly they also symbolize the entrance into the church and the entrance into the Body of Christ. Families walk through them as they bring their newly born babies for baptism. Young people with families in tow enter this building, often for the first time to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. Excited brides and eager grooms pass through these doors separately to merge from them together after the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage. Seminarians in cassocks, deacons in stoles, priest in chasubles and mitered bishops pass through these doors to celebrate the sacrament of Holy orders. Ailing and burdened people pass through them seeking forgiveness and healing. Many people pass through these doors, Sunday after Sunday seeking nourishment on their earthly journey as they come to celebrate Eucharist. And at the end of our lives, our bodies are lovingly carried through these doors for a last visit to the church before we are laid to rest.

The Incarnation Season, including Advent and Christmas, is a great time to meditate on the doors of our Church as we remember how Mary and Joseph found them closed when they were looking for a place to spend the night. Locked out, they were forced to retreat into a cave or a stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus, the one who became the door to salvation for all humankind.

During this season we are invited to open wide our doors. We are invited to open wide the doors of our souls to Christ. We are invited to open wide the doors of our heart to all who need our love. And we are invited to open wide the doors of our homes to all who need shelter.

And as Pope Francis reminds us over and over again, the church ought to do the same. Too often, the beautifully crafted doors of our cathedrals, churches and chapels are closed to too many people, literally as well as symbolically. Christ, the one who found the doors closed to him yet opened his heart to all, asks the church to do no less than that: to open wide our doors to welcome all. No matter where someone is at on their earthly journey, they are welcome in the church as the church is not a palace for the privileged and perfect but rather a shelter for those who are suffering and searching. 

May the beautiful doors of our Basilica never exist to keep people out, but rather be a constant invitation to the entire Body of Christ with all its bruises and burns to enter and find hope and healing.