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The Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Dublin, Ireland houses a somewhat unusual relic. It is not a bit of bone, a bead of blood or a strand of hair of the most revered saint of Ireland after whom the cathedral was named. Rather, it is an old door with a rectangular cut-out, large enough to put one’s hand through. It is known as the Door of Reconciliation.
Ireland’s history, not unlike that of most countries is characterized by feuds and fights between rival groups in search of power and wealth. The late 15th C. Earls of Kildare and Ormond were great rivals and were constantly at odds. In 1492 this culminated in a veritable fight. The Earl of Ormond, pursued by the Earl of Kildare sought sanctuary in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. When the Earl of Kildare arrived he pulled out his sword and started to attack the door to the cathedral’s chapterhouse where the Earl of Ormond was hiding. Rather than destroy the entire door he merely cut a whole in the door. To everyone’s surprise he then put his arm through the hole as a sign of peace, risking his limb and his life. The Earl of Ormond accepted the Earl of Kildare’s offer and shook his hand, sealing the peace. Hence the expression: “chancing your hand.” Today, the Door of Reconciliation stands in celebration of those who promote peace and reconciliation as well as in defiance to all those who sow hatred and who promote conflict.
As I was gazing upon this old peace of wood, the meaning of which is lost to most uninterested passersby, I was reminder of the Doors of Mercy designated in every cathedral and in many churches throughout the world during this Year of Jubilee. These Doors of Mercy are by necessity Doors of Reconciliation because mercy and reconciliation go hand in hand. Without mercy, there can be no reconciliation. In turn, mercy presumes reconciliation.
Like the Door of Reconciliation in Dublin, these Doors of Mercy are patient reminders and invitations to each one of us to look at our lives and seek out opportunities for reconciliation and mercy, be they small and easy or large and difficult. The Doors of Mercy also invite us to look beyond ourselves at the greater world, marked by conflicts and divisions. We are to reach across aisles and beyond borders “chancing our hand” thus participating in the Divine quest for human reconciliation and peace.
Pope Francis, since the very beginning of his pontificate has been a champion of mercy, reconciliation and peace. Time and time again, he has modeled how we are to take risks, to “chance our hand” for the sake of mercy, reconciliation and peace. Just remember his first apostolic visit outside of Rome to the Italian Island of Lampedusa, one of the symbols of the current immigration crisis. There, he decried the “globalization of indifference” and invited nations and parishes to reach out to those searching for a better life. On Holy Thursday he has taken to washing the feet of those living on the margins of society regardless of their gender, religion, or ethnic background. This year, after washing the feet of refugees he remarked that though we may come from different cultures and profess different religions we are all brothers and sisters who together must strive for peace. Most recently, Pope Francis, together with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians, and Ieronimos II, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens visited the Greek Island of Lesbos, another symbol of the Immigrant crisis. Again re-affirming the fact that all of us are sisters and brother, no matter our cultural and religious differences he said: “barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples, and divisions sooner or later lead to confrontations.”
Breaking down barriers, building bridges and reaching out a hand in friendship is not always easy, often involves a risk and always requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Things may go wrong. And yet, we must “chance our hand” if ever there be a chance of reconciliation and peace among the different nations and peoples, for we are all brothers and sisters, no matter our culture or religion.
When you go to Dublin next, do make a pilgrimage to the Door of Reconciliation and when in Minneapolis or St. Paul visit our Doors of Mercy.
A while ago I was asked to preside at a communion service. Since this came a bit unexpected I was not too pleased but accepted nonetheless. Soon I realized that this request was a blessing in disguise. The Gospel of the day ended with these verses: “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you. To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark: 4:24-25)
I had always struggled with this passage because I thought the last verse referred to material wealth. For a person who champions the poor, how could Jesus suggest that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer? This superficial reading of Scripture, of course got me in trouble. Jesus was not speaking of wealth rather he was speaking about love and mercy. Those who have love and mercy will receive love and mercy in turn. This admonition is accompanied by a not-so-subtle warning as Jesus says that we will be measured by the measure we use for one another. In other words, if we treat others with love and mercy, that is how we will be treated.
This Biblical passage came to mind immediately as I was pondering indulgences. Admittedly, I am a bit hesitant tackling the topic. I neither have the desire to provoke another reformation nor do I want to upset those who hold on to bygone beliefs. At the same time the Year of Mercy and the Indulgences that are attached to its spiritual exercises are a perfect opportunity to ponder the mystery of indulgences.
The word indulgence is derived from the Latin words indulgentia which means remission and from indulgentum which means kind, tender, fond. These two Latin roots are very important because an indulgence on the one hand speak of God’s kindness, tenderness and fondness of us. On the other hand an indulgence is the assurance of the complete remission of sin and the satisfaction of any temporal punishment incurred.
The concept of indulgences was the answer to some ambiguity which surrounded the sacrament of reconciliation. The absolution we receive after confessing our sins is predicated on the penance we do. Penance in essence is a spiritual practice intended for people to grow in their faith. Sadly, a more negative and legalistic meaning was quickly attached to penance as it was reduced to some kind of satisfaction for the sins we committed. This gave rise to several questions. How much satisfaction does God require for any given sin? How can we be assured that the penance given by a priest is enough to make up for the sin we committed? And if not, will we be required to do penance even after death? Purgatory was understood as the “place” where we make up for the lack of penance done on earth, before eventually being admitted into heaven.
It is within this context that indulgences developed. Acknowledging God’s mercy indulgences are the assurance that the penance given to a person is sufficient and that this person is not going to purgatory after death.
Fanned by fear and fed by naiveté abuses arose and these have plagued indulgences for centuries. The essential problem with indulgences was that they were divorced from the underlying theology in favor of a purely legalistic approach. In addition, the original conditions were removed from indulgences so that the sacrament of reconciliation which is an essential part of indulgences was skipped. The process of personal conversion was completely circumvented by this and indulgences turned into a commodity that could be bought and sold. The problem with this is that God’s mercy can neither be bought nor sold. God’s mercy is gratuitous.
It was with this abuse that the reformers of the faith took issue. Johann Tetzel, a German friar is said to have composed the following telling couplet which scandalized many a reformer: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” As one of his 95 objections against Rome Martin Luther wrote: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
In response, the Counter Reformation, not surprisingly affirmed the practice of indulgences while trying to right the wrongs. This has not been an easy process and the very word makes certain Catholics cringe. Despite a call for the abolishment of indulgences during the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI reaffirmed them and so did his successors.
Quoting from Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 141 states that “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt already has been forgiven… An indulgence is partial or plenary as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin… Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.”
Though some were surprised by Pope Francis’s embrace of indulgences he may actually be the one to save them as he has turned away from a legal understanding to a much richer theological understanding. Indulgences are really the celebration and affirmation of God’s mercy and indulgence in us. This mercy can neither be bought nor sold. God’s mercy is totally gratuitous in the face of which we can do nothing but show gratitude and commit ourselves to show mercy in turn.
The praxis of indulgences today presumes a number of sacramental and life-changing commitments. An indulgence, or the assurance of God’s mercy flows from the celebration of the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist; prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father and some kind of pilgrimage. During a Holy Year, the pilgrimage includes walking through the Holy Doors of Mercy as a celebration of God’s mercy and a commitment on our part to show mercy to one another for “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark: 4:25)
A few years ago, one of our parishioners asked if he might donate an image of the Divine Mercy to The Basilica. Not entirely sure what he had in mind I was a bit hesitant. In the end, his persistence and my reluctance paid off and we now have a beautiful Icon of The Divine Mercy by Deb Korluka, our Basilica Iconographer.
This Icon usually hangs in the St. Joseph Chapel but during the Easter Season it hangs from the Pulpit in the Basilica.
The Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis caused me to ponder the mystery of mercy a little further. I was delighted to have the opportunity to be in Rome for the opening of the Holy Year on December 8, 2015. When, at the end of Mass he opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica all of us gathered in St. Peter’s Square burst out in applause. And what a joy to see so many people pass through our Holy Doors when we opened them.
Recently I preached a mission on mercy in a California parish. I reluctantly accepted never having preached a mission. In the end, the experience turned out to be a gift from God. Not only did this commitment force me to think even more deeply about mercy I had to speak about it in a compelling way.
What I discovered is that our common use of the word mercy does not do the complexity and depth of God’s mercy justice. Hebrew, Greek and Latin do a better job of it. The Hebrew Bible uses two words for mercy: hesed and rachamim. Hesed is the kind of mercy that is strong, committed and steadfast. Rachamim which has the same root as rechem or womb conveys gentleness, love and compassion. The Greek word for mercy, eleos is related to elaion meaning oil thus suggesting that mercy is poured out like oil and has the healing qualities of oil. The Latin word for mercy, misericordia means broken heart. It suggests that God is broken hearted about our failings and wants nothing more than to help.
Every day of the year, especially on Sundays we celebrate the richness of God’s mercy most especially as it was revealed to us in Jesus Christ. He embodies God’s enduring love and limitless mercy for us. It is this image of the merciful Jesus that is depicted in the Divine Mercy Icon.
As we contemplate this Icon during the Year of Mercy let us give thanks for the mercy God has shown us. And in turn let us show mercy to one another. Mercy given and mercy received, that ought to be the motto of all Christians.
Holy Saturday is one of my favorite days. I like to arrive at The Basilica before the hustle and bustle of the Easter preparations begins. The cross we venerated the night before is still laid out on purple pillows, covered with rose petals strewn from the dome. The air is heavy with the smell of incense and the aroma of scented oil. And above all, everything is perfectly still. This silence is not a dead silence, rather it is a silence filled with the promise of new life. It is a silence rich with anticipation and hope.
Bathing in the early morning light that pierces through the stained glass windows and dances on the receptive limestone walls I sit for but a few moments and let my mind wonder, inevitably guided by an icon and a homily which is sometimes ascribed to Pope Gregory the Great .
The icon depicts the risen Christ who broke the doors of hell with his victorious cross and opened the gates to paradise. Beneath his feet the dead are slowly coming to life. Most prominent among them are Adam and Eve, the first among the dead. Jesus, the new Adam holds on to the hand of the old Adam and prepares to lead him out of Hell. Adam in turn reaches for Eve’s hand and brings her along. And everyone else in Hell reaches for Adam and Eve. Thus all those who were asleep in death now are brought to new life.
According to the author of the ancient homily, Jesus said to Adam: “for you are in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.” The old Adam and the new Adam have once again united. That was the ultimate mission of Jesus: “God became human so that humans might become like God” as so many ancient bishops wrote. This uniting of heaven and earth, of God and humans is the essence of the Easter message. We are all one because God became one of us so we might become like God. And God unites us all no matter who we are or where we are and invites all of us to be more like God.
Those who are imprisoned by poverty, addiction and prejudice are invited to break free. Those who promote the darkness of racism, sexism, religious extremism are challenged to a change of heart and to come into the light. And ultimately those who are asleep in death are called to new life. This resurrection challenge the risen Christ places before all of us on Easter is not an easy task but it is what we are asked to do as Christians: we are called to break barriers, to set people free, and ultimately to celebrate and protect all life.
The silence on Holy Saturday is short lived as our many volunteers and those who will receive the Easter Sacrament start to arrive. If Holy Saturday is my favorite day, the talk I share with those who will join the church during the Easter Vigil is my favorite talk of the year. These women and men have been on a very intentional journey for months and sometimes much longer. They have prayed, studied, and shared many things with one another. And now they are ready. Their faith and commitment, their hope for the future and their love for God and one another embody what Christ asks of us today: to believe in Him and to imitate Him. Their excitement is exhilarating. Being with them reminds me of an ancient hymn used on Easter Sunday when those who were baptized the night before enter into the church:
These are the lambs, newly baptized,
Who proclaim the glad tidings: Alleluia
Recently come to the waters,
And full of God’s light and splendor. Alleluia, Alleluia.
May God’s light and splendor which shines so brightly in the new members of our community invigorate all of us so we can go forth from our Easter celebrations with a new resolve to be the much needed light for the world. Thus we will become like God as God has ordained for us for God is in us and we are in God.
Blessed Easter to all.
Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion inaugurates Holy Week. This is the time Christians remember and celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. At the heart of this celebration and commemoration stands the cross. This cross is laden with pain, humiliation, death but it is also crowned with salvation, resurrection and joy.
Unless we just go through these days moved only by the skin-deep experience of sadness and joy without allowing it to touch us deeply, we cannot but ask the question as to the reason for the cross. Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
In a valiant attempt to make this mystery easily accessible, the answer has been made quite simple: “Jesus died for our sins.” If so, what does that mean? Did he die as a result of our sins? Did he die to atone for our sins? Did he die in order for us to rise above our sins? Did he die in order for us to move beyond our sins? And whose sins are we talking about? Do we mean the sins of our ancestors; our very own sins; or maybe even sins yet to be committed? A complete answer includes all of the above and much more. There is however another approach to this mystery. This approach suggests that the death of Jesus was the ultimate expression of God’s unconditional love for all of us as Jesus gave his life for the salvation of the world. We are the recipients of this unconditional love. In turn, we are called to love unconditionally. Once we have reached this level of love, then all sinfulness will be banned from the earth and the promise will be fulfilled.
Our Christian history has emphasized our human sinfulness and unworthiness. I remember a Good Friday homily in the early 1970ies during which the priest told us that we were nothing but “rats in the gutters of life, unworthy of God’s love”. We have a proven history of making sure that people are aware of their sinfulness and their unworthiness. There seems to be a resurgence of this with many believers pointing out sin in society and in people’s life. “Thank God I am not one of them.” We tend to feel good about ourselves as we define ourselves relative to the perceived graver sins of others. And as we enter into this game we often look at the part, rather than at the whole, a praxis which applies to much of our lives. We fail to see the moral forest in favor of one sinful tree. We love to position ourselves as protectors of the Gospel values up and against public sinners. If I recall, Jesus has a few choice words for us: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” And further: “I will not condemn you either. Go home and sin no more.”
All of us have closets filled with skeletons…skeletons of hatred, jealousy, envy, pride, self-righteousness… Holy week is a good time to open our closets and deal with those skeletons, our own skeletons. Change will only happen when we concern ourselves with our own skeletons. This is not an easy exercise. It is much easier to find fault with others. Can you imagine how wonderful the world would be if all of us spent as much time cleaning our own spiritual house as we spend on finding fault with others? May Holy Week 2016 be a time of remembrance, celebration and spiritual renewal for all of us.
Recently, a reporter asked me whether Lent was considered passé by 21st C. Christians. Her question took me a bit by surprise. Not to be stumped I told her that Lent is more important than ever. Lent and Easter offer the perfect antidote to the barrage of negativity we face on a daily basis. So no, Lent is not passé, on the contrary.
Granted, the motivation for people’s participation in the Lenten disciplines may have changed. Visions of purgatory and Hell rarely move people anymore. I suspect it is a profound desire to be better people and the hope for a better world that motivates people to participate in the disciplines of Lent.
After all, the essence of Lent is to right those relationships that have been wronged. Many, if not most of the world’s problems are due to wronged relationships. Different religions quarrel with one another and among themselves. Nations fight other nations. People exploit other people. All these evils are rooted in wronged relationships.
The Lenten praxis of righting relationships is rooted in the Bible. The Biblical Year of Jubilee which was called every 50 years was essentially about righting relationships. Captives were released. Slaves were set free. Those who had lost property were reinstated. Debts were forgiven. And beyond all these human relationships the relationship between humans and God was righted as well. During the Year of Jubilee God was recognized anew as the creator of the universe from whom all things come and to whom all things belong.
Every Lent is a mini Year of Jubilee and a call to right relationships. We do this through prayer, fasting and giving. And we do this not because we feel guilty or are afraid but rather because we want to do better and we want our world to be better.
During his general audience on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis called on us “to practice pardon, combat poverty and inequality and promote an equitable distribution of the earth’s goods to all.” Our common goal is to “create a society based on equality and solidarity.” In essence, what pope Francis asks us to do; what the Church asks us to do; what the Bible asks us to do; what God asks us to do is to right relationships.
This is not an easy task. The season of Lent and the Year of Mercy offer us the opportunity to make some changes in our lives through prayer, fasting and giving that will right relationships and move us forward in the direction of this Biblical vision of solidarity, equality and peace. Equality can only be reached when we are committed to solidarity. And peace will never be attained unless we have equality.
Is Lent passé? I am sure that it is to some. I am also sure that to others it is nothing more than a cultural expression of a gone-by era. For true believers it is an exquisite opportunity to right relationships with God and with one another by advancing solidarity, equality and peace through prayer, fasting and sharing.
May this Lent be blessed for all of us.
Recently a young man approached me following one of our Sunday liturgies. He asked if we needed him for the liturgy. Eager to recruit I immediately said “yes, of course.” He thanked me and walked away. I was surprised he did not ask where he could sign up or how he could be most helpful. Maybe his question was more complex?
Reflecting on this interaction, I was reminded that shortly after the post-Vatican II liturgy had been implemented, Pope Paul VI said that up until then it had been sufficient for lay people to merely assist at Mass. “Before,” he said “being there was enough; now attention and activity are required. Before, everyone could doze or chatter, now all must listen and pray.” (see Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982) 27, 401, 115).
This most major shift from ‘assisting at Mass’ to ‘actively participating in the liturgy’ has revolutionized our Catholic understanding of the liturgy. No longer is it acceptable for the laity to watch the ordained ministers celebrate the rites of the church. Since this momentous shift, all Catholics are invited, encouraged, and even required to participate in many and various ways in the celebration of the liturgy.
However, this does not mean that everyone participates in the same capacity. The Pauline image of the Body of Christ, which is one but has many parts, helps us understand how this participation might be best understood. Though the entire Body of Christ celebrates the liturgy, different members of the Body of Christ exercise different ministries in the liturgy.
Thus, the first ministry is that of the entire Church. We, the Church, celebrate the liturgy as the one Body of Christ. Therefore it is important that the entire Body of Christ be present at the liturgy. And it is important that the entire Body of Christ participate actively, fully, and consciously.
Second, some members of the Body are called to participate in a more particular way relative to our gifts and talent. Certain members of the Body of Christ, e.g. have been given the talents to lead the community in prayer and are ordained to do so. Other members of the Body of Christ who have been gifted with musical talents are called to lead the community in song. Those who have the talent of public speech are called to proclaim the Word of God, etc.
Talents are entrusted to us by God for the betterment of the world and the church. Liturgical talents are entrusted to us for the betterment of the liturgy and the proclamation of the Gospel. As members of the Body of Christ we are called to use those talents.
Like the young man who stopped me after Mass, you may wonder if we need you for the celebration of the liturgy at The Basilica of Saint Mary. The answer is plain and simple: “Yes we do!” First of all we need you to participate actively in the liturgy through praying, singing, listening, etc. Second, we need you as a minister of hospitality (usher); as a lector; as an Extraordinary minister of Holy Communion; as a cantor; as a choir member; as a sacristan; as a server; etc. Whatever your talents are, they can surely be put to the service of the liturgy.
As you serve in one of those capacities you will discover a new and deeper appreciation for the celebration of the liturgy; you will learn how to better serve the Church and ultimately you will assist with the bringing about of the Reign of God. And if you think our community is too large, this is a great way to make it smaller. So, do not hesitate. Please go to www.mary.org/liturgicalministry and start the process. And remember: ‘don’t ask what the liturgy can do for you. Ask what you can do for the liturgy!’
On the feast of the Epiphany, one of the children in our Learning programs asked when we could go back to being “original.” Kelli Kester, who coordinates our children and youth programs asked if he meant “ordinary?” He said “yes, ordinary! Green!” I marvel at this great interaction. Is our “green” season “original” or “ordinary?” As Catholic allegorist Guillaume Durand a 13th C. bishop of Mendes in France suggested the green seasons are neither original nor ordinary, they are “in-between” seasons, nothing less and nothing more.
Up until the liturgical renewal promulgated by the Second Vatican Council there was no “ordinary” time on our liturgical calendar. The two “in-between” seasons we now call “ordinary” were known by different names. First, the Sundays between the end of Christmas and the beginning of Lent were generally known as the first, second, third, etc. “Sunday after Epiphany”. The Sundays between the end of the Easter Season and the beginning of Advent were generally known as the first, second, third, etc. “Sunday after Pentecost.”
The reform of the liturgy initiated by the Second Vatican Council sought to give the liturgical calendar a clearer structure in order to highlight the importance of the Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter seasons. To that end the time between Christmas and Lent roughly speaking January-February and the time between Easter and Advent, roughly speaking June-November were given a name independent of the preceding season. These two sections of the liturgical year were to be known in Latin as Tempus per Annum or “Time throughout the Year” instead of Sunday after Epiphany and Sundays after Pentecost.
Literally translated the Sundays in Ordinary Time should be known as e.g. “The Fifth Sunday throughout the Year.” Sensing this was a somewhat awkward translation it was decided to translate the Latin more freely as “The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.” This may or may not have been a happy decision as the word “ordinary” implies something that is common, not special, or even trite. Moreover, this word says absolutely nothing about the season it names. By comparison, the name of the other seasons either directly or indirectly speaks to the meaning of the season: Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter. A better name for this season might have Ordered Time or Tempus Ordinarium in Latin as during Ordinary Time we move from one counted Sunday to another in an ordered numerical fashion.
From a theological point of view one could describe Ordinary Time simply as a time ordered by Christian prayer for Christian living. Thus, despite its name there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time, either in its content or in its calculation. And as the young lad suggested, “ordinary” or “green” time is indeed rather “original.”
In a few weeks we will celebrate Ash Wednesday and thus begin Lent. That is the time when Lucinda Naylor’s contemporary Stations of the Cross will be hung beneath the traditional Stations, once again. I know that many of us love these mono prints and are anticipating their return. Others simply tolerate them. And some of us really wish I would forget about them or that I would “donate them to the Vatican Museums” as someone suggested. Since I will neither forget about them nor donate them I thought I might ponder the role of contemporary art in the church in preparation of Ash Wednesday.
For starters, let’s be clear that all artists were contemporary artists at one point and like today’s contemporary artists they were revered by some and reviled by others. Take e.g. celebrated French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Out of gratitude to his teacher Gabriel Fauré (1845– 1925) Ravel dedicated a newly composed string quartet to him. Fauré told him that this was very kind but that he could not accept since the piece was ugly, had no meaning and was completely unintelligible. Publicly humiliated Ravel doubted his talents and he almost stopped composing. Thankfully, fellow composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) who loved Ravel’s work encouraged him to continue writing music. Today, String Quartet in F is considered one of the great examples of French string music and Ravel’s work is known and loved throughout the world.
The vision of artists is often experienced as complex by their contemporaries because they are visionaries. Their art can be unusual and is sometimes not inviting. And their style may be abstract or at least stylized. All of this means that it is often more difficult to appreciate and understand contemporary art than traditional art. Traditional art is mostly pleasing and at least on one level more accessible because it is figurative. How often have you heard people say or maybe said yourself: “I don’t understand it.” And that is often why people don’t like the art. Yet, our inability to understand and our consequent dislike of certain works of art do not make them bad art.
Figurative art has served our church well throughout history as it clearly tells our Christian story. However, figurative art runs the risk of imposing imagery. Take e.g. the Conversion of St. Paul. The most popular depiction of this important moment in Paul’s life shows him falling off his horse. And though Scripture does not make mention of a horse that is how most people visualize Paul’s Conversion. And even those of us who have never seen one of these paintings or sculptures very likely imagine a horse as part of this scene as the horse has become part of our shared memory.
This is of course an innocent example, but what about Mary and Jesus being depicted with blond hair and blue eyes. What does that image do to our religious imagination? How does this “color” Christianity? And how does it perpetuate evil stereotypes?
By contrast, abstract art does not impose images, rather abstract art invites imagination. That makes it less obvious and more difficult. Yet, because of this abstract art enjoys the potential of a deeper and more genuine understanding of the Gospel message.
So, when you see our abstract Stations of the Cross please take some time with them. Read the mediations we post next to them. And while reading these, let the colors, shapes and lines speak to your religious imagination. You might be surprised how much you like them if only you would give them a chance.
[Based on an entry in my book “What’s the Smoke For? and Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy.”]
It was January 6, 1972 - Epiphany. The day had been mostly quiet but as the sun started to set our excitement began to build. Finally, the doorbell rang. “It must be the three kings” one of my brothers exclaimed. We all went into the foyer and through the opaque glass windows of our front door we spotted the silhouettes of three kids. My father stepped forward and opened the door. Wearing some old, torn sheets for royal robes and with a paper crown on their heads there they stood: the first set of numerous “kings” expected to parade by the house all evening. As was the tradition, one of the kings carried a cardboard star which was affixed to a broom stick borrowed for the occasion. They sang a carol. Then the kid with the star stuck out his hand. My father reached into his pockets and gave him some money. We wished one another a merry Christmas and off they went to our neighbor’s home.
Throughout the Christmas season, but especially on Epiphany children in Belgium and in many European countries honor this centuries old custom of Star Singing. The star singers take their name from the star they carry, a reference to the star which led the Magi to the Christ Child. The origin is a 15th C. medieval mystery play that tells the story of the three Magi, albeit a bit enhanced. Essential to the play was the procession from home to home with the request that the star be allowed in. If permitted then the young actors entered the home and performed the play. After receiving refreshments and monetary gifts they moved on to the next home. These days the play is no longer performed but the procession of the kings is retained.
Beyond the nostalgia evoked by this memory, I find this simple custom to be profoundly symbolic. On the one hand, these kids testify to the birth of Jesus which happened some 2000 years ago. As such they are an example to all of us as we are called to proclaim to the world that in Jesus we have recognized Emanuel, God-with-us. On the other hand, this simple procession also symbolizes the search we all undertake to find God-with-us, Emanuel here and now. For as God was born in Jesus, so he is present among us today.
Yet, where can we find God-with-us in a world which seems to bring despair to so many people? Where is God in all of the misery we have created? The answer is simple, God is right here in the thick of it all. Emanuel can be found among the refugees who are fleeing their war torn countries. Emanuel can be found among those who live under the bridge and have nothing to eat. Emanuel can be found among the elderly who are dying a forgotten death. Emanuel can be found among the victims of wars waged in God’s name. Emanuel can be found among the children, women and men who are exploited and enslaved. God can be found in many places, but above all among those people who are most in need. That is where we can find Emanuel, God-with-us. That is where we are to honor God with our gifts of incense symbolizing respect, myrrh symbolizing dignity and gold symbolizing support.
One of the best cues to finding God-with-us has been given to us by Saint Athanasius (ca 298–373) who famously wrote: “God became human so that humans might become like God.” If only we were able and willing to recognize God in others we might find God-with-us. Sadly, like many of today’s kings or star singers, we go from door to door in an endless quest for God, blinded to the very presence of God all around us. So, let’s take up the star, put on some old sheets and a paper crown and let’s open our heart, mind and soul to God’s presence in one another, most especially in those we fear the most. Only then will we truly find God-with-us and will our world have a chance at peace.