Johan's Blog

The Exaltation of the Cross

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14) on the one hand celebrates the profound reality that “by the cross we have been saved” and on the other hand it speaks to our evolving understanding of the meaning of this statement as reflected in the diverse depictions of the cross throughout Christian history.

Early Christians refrained from depicting the cross as they wrestled with the reality of Jesus’ horrific and humiliating death. Rather, they focused on Jesus’ resurrection and our salvation. Thus the earliest artistic references to Christianity are not crosses, but sacred initials such as IC being the first letters of the name of Jesus Christ in Greek; or sacred symbols such as a fish. The latter was adopted as a Christian symbols because the Greek word for fish, Ichthys also happens to be the acronym for: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, meaning, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

The first crosses do not appear until the mid third and early fourth century, although there is at least one earlier depiction of the crucifixion which was however satirical in nature, making a mockery of Christianity. After the discovery of the True Cross by Empress Helena during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 326 and 328 the depiction of the cross quickly gained in popularity. Often a victory wreath or other Christian symbol decorated these early crosses. The depiction of the crucified Jesus remained extremely rare.

In the late fourth century the portrayal of Jesus on the cross became more widely accepted. However, in these early rendition of the crucifix Jesus is depicted as completely in charge, standing on the cross using a wooden footstool that is attached to the cross. Both hands and both feet are nailed to the cross. His eyes are wide open and he looks directly at the beholder. The emphasis of these depictions was on the resurrection and salvation gained for us, rather than on the suffering Jesus endured.

After the fall of the Roman and then the Carolingian empire, Europe sank into the so-called dark ages which were characterized by political anarchy; war and violence; famine; and diseases such as the plague which decimated more than half of the population of many cities. Suffering was an overwhelming reality for most people in the Middle Ages. It is during these times that a shift took place in the depiction of the crucifixion and the underlying theology as the feelings of despair and suffering on the part of the people were clearly reflected in the way they depicted Jesus. Rather than standing on the cross, Jesus hangs from the cross. His feet are placed on one another and one nail is used for both feet. His body shows signs of torture and he often wears the crown of thorns as described in the Gospels.

The Renaissance with its interest in realism keeps depicting the suffering Jesus but with less of the exaggerated gore so typical for many of the medieval depictions. Although Christ still is shown as dying on the cross there is a quality of stillness surrounding the cross. And although there is realism in the depiction there is also rational restraint.

The Baroque renditions which were part of the counter-reformation efforts of the Catholic Church are all about the drama of the moment as they show Longinus, one of the Roman soldiers, piercing the side of Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus faints into the arms of John, the beloved and Mary of Magdala embraces the foot of the cross. The sacrifice of the cross is emphasized in these depictions to support the theology of the sacrifice of the Mass.

The late 18th and 19th century which are characterized by a return to earlier artistic styles embrace the medieval depiction in the Romanesque and Gothic style but the neo-versions lack the over-emphasis on the suffering of the images they are inspired by. Rather there is a romantic softness and a form of idealized spiritualization in the crucifixes that are typical for this period

The 20th and 21st centuries have all of the above and much more, for better or for worse. Though there was a clear trend in the Catholic Church to move away from the crucifix in favor of a simple wooden cross which may or may not have had a risen Christ it, new directives indicate that a crucifix needs to be placed in each sanctuary and processional crosses need to actually be processional crucifixes.

As we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross let us remember the words we sing every Good Friday: “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” That is the essence of the theology of salvation and should be the inspiration for our depictions of this profound reality.

 

Choose Life

The recent deaths of Michael Brown, James Foley and Douglas McAuthur McCain are deeply troubling. They were not just three more killings reported on the news and mourned over by their families and loved ones alone. More than that, they have become a barometer of our society.

The death of Michael Brown, a black man who was killed by a white officer forces us to face the racial discrimination which persists in our country and throughout the world.  The killing of James Foley by ISIS fighters draws our attention to the potential for evil that is inherent in most religions. And the death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, a MN resident who died while fighting on the side of ISIS leaves us wondering about the growing religious radicalization of young people.

What has become of us? The beautiful vision God had for creation and the Good News which Jesus brought to our world seem much less attainable today than ever before. Politicians, historians, sociologists, social scientists and students of religion offer complicated and complex reasons why the world is so divided. To me, it seems very simple: we are selfish and greedy and we fear that which is different from us, i.e. skin color, religious affiliation, cultural expressions, etc. And when pushed to the edge we chose hatred over love and even death over life.

There is another way and a better one at that. I used to visit with an elderly Dominican sister on a regular basis. She was deeply devout and very concerned about our world. After she offered me coffee and cookies she would lead me into the chapel where we prayed together for the needs of the world since as she always reminded me: “there is so much misery in this world.” Her prayer today is more powerful than ever as she is praying with the heavenly hosts.

She was right, we need to pray for the world, however, prayer is only one side of the coin. On Holy Thursday we do two things: we pray as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist and we wash one another’s feet as we commemorate Jesus command to love one another in word and deed. Prayer and action go hand in hand. The one cannot exist without the other. Thus as we pray for peace in the world, we must work toward peace. As we pray for an end to racial divisions we must work toward equality for all. As we pray for coexistence of religions we must reach out, get to know one another and work toward trust and respect between religions.

Racial and religiously motivated hatred are ruinous to our society and to humanity as a whole. They are profoundly shameful. They are not becoming of God’s creatures. So, let’s resolve to pray and act so that racial division and religious hatred might end. Let’s choose love over hatred and life over death. Let’s break the destructive cycle of selfishness and greed and let’s open our hearts and minds to the wonders of God’s rich and diverse creation.

May Michael Brown, James Foley and Douglas McAuthur McCain be embraced by the mercy of God. And may their deaths help us to open our eyes and change our ways.

My grandfather was a professional cyclist. I inherited many pictures of him riding his bike or standing on the winner’s podium. In my favorite photo he models a hat. A taped-on inscription suggests that he wore only this kind of hats. When asked about this early advertisement experiment he said that he was made to do it. He seems to have been a reluctant model advertising his favorite hat. This is how I often feel about spreading the Good News. Though it is my favorite topic and message, I am somewhat reluctant to advertise it or model it, especially in our world today where religion is often viewed with suspicion and believers are considered naïve, antiquarians or worse, extremists.

As a community of believers we can react to this in a number of different ways. We can ignore the truth and act as if it were not so. We can close our doors on the world as we hunker down with like-minded people and seek comfort in our cherished traditions. Or we can open our minds and hearts and engage in a dialogue with the many challenges this world offers while speaking the language of faith appropriate for our times, rather than of times past.

Since his election on March 13, 2013 Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against options one and two and quoting the documents of the Second Vatican Council he has asked all of us to be evangelizers. The Greek word Euangelion means Good News. It is used 41 times in the New Testament to refer to the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the mystery of God’s unconditional love. This mystery is God’s mystery and it is to be our mystery, our message, and our task. Ask yourself, what gifts have been given to me as a means of spreading the Good News.  How can I discover what my gifts are? Listen and see how God is calling you. We are called to bring this Good News, this mystery of God’s unconditional love to the whole world, in deed and if necessary, in word. And when we have to speak we are to do it in ways the people of every time and place can understand and embrace.

I keep my favorite photo of my grandfather on my desk. The photo reminds me that though he was a reluctant model of hats, he did it. Likewise, though we are often reluctant models of Christ, we are called to do it, even in our ever changing and challenging world. 

When I was growing up we had images of St. Christopher everywhere. Despite his disapproval, I loved playing with the magnetic image of Christopher stuck to the dashboard in my father’s car. My mom always made sure a medal of St. Christopher was pinned to the inside of my suitcase whenever if left for an overnight. In my grandmother’s home there was a place of honor reserved for St. Christopher, right next to St. Anthony whom she regularly turned to face the wall as she had lost something. When she knew I was traveling she put St. Christopher in front of St. Anthony, almost in line with the Blessed Virgin herself and lit an extra candle

This all happened in the late sixties and the early seventies. We were blissfully unaware of the fact that Christopher had been quietly removed from the Roman Calendar of Saints. I suspect many of us are unaware of this even today. No matter, since we can still honor him as a saint in our local churches and in our daily devotions. Today one of my brothers has my father’s magnetic Christopher in his car while my sister dutifully pins the medal of St. Christopher to my niece’s suitcase. In my house St. Christopher hangs in a place of prominence.

Very little is known about Christopher. The Roman Martyrology which contains the list of all the known martyrs and saints simply mentions that he was martyred for the faith in Lycia during the reign of Roman emperor Decius (249-251). The Golden Legend, a thirteenth C. compilation of the lives of saints and their miracles gives a little more information about St. Christopher.

According to this book ahich was fiercely popular during the Middle Ages, Christopher was a tall and strong man with a severe appearance. His goal in life was to serve the greatest king ever. So he became the servant of the king of Canaan, where he lived. He soon learned that said king feared the devil. As a result Christopher went in search of the devil so he might serve him. After finding someone who identified himself as the devil he went into his service. Having noticed that the devil feared the cross he sought to serve the One who died on the cross. A monk suggested he could best serve Christ through a life of fasting and abstinence. Since this was not something Christopher could embrace the monk suggested that he might serve Christ by helping pilgrims cross a strong river. One day he carried a small child on his shoulders across the river. As he made his way the water became very turbulent and the child very heavy. After a great struggle he made it to the other side. Christopher told the child that he felt like he had carried the entire weight of the world on his shoulders. The child replied that he carried more than that: the very creator of that world. Then the child disappeared. Christopher then realized he was serving the greatest king ever. He went on to preach the Gospel and he gave his life for the faith.

Though we have no historical evidence that Christopher ever lived, his story is a great inspiration to all of us. The name Christopher or Christophoros in Greek literally means Christ bearer. As Christians we are all called to be Christophoroi or Christ Bearers. In other words, we are to be witnesses to Christ in our world. Sometimes it is easy to live according to the Gospel and to testify to the Good News of Christ in word and deed. Other times it is more difficult to do so as we might experience personal conflicts or be challenged by forces that pull us in different directions. However, no matter how heavy the weight, like Christopher we are called to go on and to make it to the other side of the river.

Thanks be to God!

During these summer months many people are fortunate to have some vacation time. Some of us will enjoy a couple of weeks at home, catching up on much needed domestic tasks. Others will spend time at a cabin by a lake or in the woods reveling in the pleasures of country living. Still others will travel around Minnesota or maybe venture into other states. And for some, this is the year to fly east or west, north or south in search of some relaxation and some rejuvenation in other countries.

I have very fond memories of our family vacations in Belgium. Most of the time we simply went to the cabin where we spent entire summers. Sometimes we ventured into neighboring countries such as The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg or France. These daytrips were never a simple matter. First, there were seven of us and there was an age difference among the children of 8 years. Second, we all had different interests ranging from shopping, to hiking, to art. Third, I was a persistent kid who insisted on entering every church we passed and including at least one museum per visit. And I (almost) always got my way to the dismay of my siblings.

One year we went on a week-long excursion to Burgundy in France. One of my father’s uncles, a Franciscan had been a pastor in a small Burgundian town and we wanted to see where he had lived and where he was buried. Thankfully his little church was still in good shape and his tomb was very well cared for. We even found a painting signed J. van Parys on the High Altar in the church.

Although this was all quite wonderful, for me, the high point of the trip was our visit to the abbey of Fontenay which happened despite some great protestations by my siblings. Founded in 1180 as a daughter house of the Cistercian abbey of Clervaux Fontenay is set in the rolling hills of the Burgundian landscape. In its 800+ years of history the abbey and its monastic community knew waves of success and downfall. At the end of the 18th century as a consequence of the French Revolution the monks were dispersed and the abbey was turned into a paper mill. In 1906 new owners began the restoration of the abbey and opened it to the public.

As soon as I walked through the doors of the majestic abbey church, stripped of all its liturgical and devotional accoutrements, I could almost hear the monks chant the office and I could very nearly smell burning candles and wafting incense. My siblings thought me in a trance. How could I not be? This building which had harbored monastic prayer for nearly a thousand years still bore witness to the sounds, the sights and smells of the prayers offered beneath its sheltering roof and under its reaching arches.

I walked away from that place with a sense of awe for the persistent presence of prayer. Even though this building had not been used as an active abbey for a couple of centuries, it still was able to tell the story of our faith and inspire the thousands of tourists wandering through it. The only thing I could say was “Thanks be to God.”

May your holidays afford you similar experiences that will allow you to say: “Thanks be to God” be it in the woods, by the lake or hopefully in a church.

 

A number of years ago I found myself in one of our major cities on Corpus Christi Sunday. I decided to participate in the celebrations at the local Cathedral.  On my way there, I walked by an Episcopal church. The service was in full swing and revealed great dedication to the liturgy. At the Catholic Cathedral, the celebration was even more magnificent. It was truly a beautiful event, a liturgist’s delight.

As I made my way back to the hotel I stumbled over a man who was sleeping in the street. Only then did I notice that several large cardboard boxes lined the avenue. A man crawled out of one of them and asked me for money saying he was hungry. The pathway connecting both churches was dotted with these makeshift shelters housing many hungry people. Blinded by the splendor of both liturgies, I had not noticed them.

That afternoon some friends invited me to accompany them to their non-denominational church. The service was mediocre at best. One thing I will never forget though: at the end of communion the minister placed all the remaining pieces of bread in the hands of the man who had asked me for money. He sat down and ate all of it. When finished he looked to see if there was more, but there was none.

That image is for ever burned in my memory. It reminded me that as Saint John Paul II wrote in Mane Nobiscum: the Eucharist calls us to share “not only in spiritual goods but in material goods as well”. Indeed, it is our mutual love, and in particular our “concern for those in need which is the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebration is judged.”

The celebration of the Eucharist invites us to become the One we honor with our song; the One we raise up in a blessing; the One we carry in procession. That very One lived a humble life of love for the poor and of service unto the cross. He is the One we are to follow, to imitate and to become. He is the one we carry in our Eucharistic processions. These processions are not only to be processions WITH the Body of Christ they also are a procession OF the Body of Christ.

In a way, by walking with the Body of Christ we rehearse in our own bodies the path Jesus took and takes today.  This path is not one of pomp and circumstance, but rather a path of humility and service. This path is one that leads to the cross and from there to life everlasting. Those of us who take part in the celebration of the Eucharist as well as in Eucharistic processions should ready ourselves to pick up that cross and follow him wherever he may lead us.

 

Come Holy Spirit, Open our Hearts and Enlighten our Minds!

Many years ago I proclaimed the first reading on the solemnity of Pentecost. I had just been confirmed and was extremely excited to be asked. Little did I know that this is one of the most difficult readings to proclaim. My dear great-aunt who was a nun told me to make sure I prepared the reading well as it had many difficult words in it. Looking over the reading I soon discovered terminology I had never encountered before: who were the Parthians, the Medes or the Elamites? And what did all of them do in Jerusalem? Though I stumbled over Phrygia and Pamphilia I was intrigued by what appeared to be the description of a most colorful and somewhat exotic gathering. I imagined life in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago to be complex and extremely diverse, not unlike the farmers market in Minneapolis today. There one can get a taste of the rich tapestry of humankind reflected in colorful native wear, intriguing languages, and tempting ethnic foods. Jerusalem must have felt somewhat like that: festive, exuberant, colorful, rich.

By contrast the disciples were in hiding. They were laden with fear and burdened by uncertainty. Christ had recently ascended into Heaven and they were at a loss. Suddenly everything changed. Filled by the Spirit they cast off all fear, threw open the windows and burst into the street. Having caught the marketers by surprise they spoke to them about the marvelous deeds of God. And miraculously, everyone could understand what the disciples had to say. The Holy Spirit broke every ethnic barrier and linguistic difference and all embraced the Good News.

Our world today is even more diverse than Jerusalem 2000 years ago. And the friendly hustle and bustle which is characteristic for above described markets is all too often replaced with fear and anger. And even though we may speak the same language we seem unable to hear one another. The political world is particularly affected by this. The kind of linguistic cacophony typical for political discourse is often maddening. And rather than inviting dialogue everyone just speaks louder so as to be heard above the rest and to win whichever issue is at stake.

Our church is not immune to this either. Though we speak the same language we don’t seem to understand one another. And rather than listening to one another we just speak louder and louder in a desperate attempt to be heard and to win whichever battle we are waging. Sadly, we lack the inner peace and the mutual respect needed to listen intently to one another and learn from one another and together become more like Christ.

On this Solemnity of Pentecost, let us pray that the Holy Spirit may cleanse our souls and open our hearts. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire us to share the Good News with the world in deed and in word. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will bring us all closer together so we may become one in Christ.

Today we hear that “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs” heard them speaking about the marvels God had accomplished.

Maybe one day we will hear it said: “We are republicans, democrats and independents; rich and poor; liberals, conservatives and moderates; straight and gay; women; men and children; married and single; Africans, Americans Asians and Europeans; yet we all speak of the mighty acts of God.”

May that day come soon!

Come Holy Spirit, Open our Hearts and Enlighten our Minds!

 

Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Ascending Christ by Bill Mac
 

I wonder if you know where this work of art resides?

This is just one of many depictions of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven that exist throughout the world. They come in miniature format as well as in large frescoes. Jesus is usually represented in the center as he ascends into heaven. Below him are his mother, Mary and the gathered apostles piously gazing at his ascending body, saying goodbye while at the same time anticipating his return.

Some representations, especially those dating from the Middle Ages share a remarkable detail. In the place where Jesus’ feet last touched the earth, the artists have depicted Jesus’ right footprint or both footprints. Where does this custom come from and what does it mean?

According to the Scriptures and tradition, Jesus ascended into heaven from what is now known as the Mount of the Ascension in Jerusalem. Successive grand buildings have marked this site ever since Christianity was legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD. Today, only a small chapel has survived the difficult and tumultuous history of this city. Nevertheless, one very important relic is still housed in the chapel: a large stone which is said to have the right footprint of Jesus on it.

Medieval pilgrims and crusaders brought the story of the miraculous footprint back to Europe and thus gave rise to the depiction of Jesus’ footprint(s) in paintings of the Ascension.

A priest friend recently made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Upon his return he spoke about the profoundly spiritual experience he had visiting all the Holy Sites. He found it very meaningful to connect with the physical reality of Jesus’ life on earth. One of the places he found most moving was the chapel of the Ascension. He described how he engaged in the ancient devotional practice and placed his right foot on the imprint of Jesus right foot. With his foot touching Jesus’ footprint my friend experienced a deep connection with Jesus and his mission. He described the footprint as a place where heaven and earth touch. Standing in Jesus footprint he very intentionally recommitted himself to continue walking in Jesus’ footsteps.

Not many of us are able to go to Jerusalem to literally connect with Jesus’ footprint. However, we have been given spiritual exercises and artistic renditions to help us do just the same. May the celebration of the feast of the Ascension renew in us a deep awareness of our own calling and strengthen our commitment to Jesus’ mission as we await His return.

One does not have to travel to the churches mentioned in the Da Vinci Code in search of intriguing stories. Every cathedral, church and chapel has its own secret codes hidden in the building, even The Basilica.

As you walk around you will notice that every chapel has a small wall carving announcing which saint is honored there. A burning heart surrounded by a crown of thorns leads to the Sacred Heart chapel. A star, symbol of Mary leads to the chapel of St. Anne and Mary. A lily, symbol of St. Joseph leads to the shrine of St. Joseph. Strangely, near the chapel of St. Anthony, patron saint of Italy you will find  a clover and snake, the symbol of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Might this chapel have been intended for St. Anthony and was the wrong symbol carved in the wall? Or was the carving correct and did the parish have a change of heart in terms of selection of saints?

In his 1932 book entitled, The Basilica of St. Mary of Minneapolis, longtime pastor, Mgr. Reardon mentions the St. Anthony of Padua Chapel.  Research in the archives, however reveals that the relic buried in the altar is not of St. Anthony but rather of St. Patrick.

This seems to indicate that the chapel was intended for St. Patrick while today, St. Anthony is honored there. Might this chapel reveal a bit of competition between the Irish and Italian founding families? Today, St. Patrick’s symbol and St. Anthony’s statue coexist peacefully.

Whether there was friendly feuding between our founding families or not, we are deeply grateful to them. Since they celebrated the first Eucharist on May 31, 2014 (Pentecost) over 100,000 Masses have been celebrated at The Basilica while 11,908 couples were married and 26,456 babies have been baptized in our church.

Our community has grown in so many ways since those early days. From a couple hundred families we have grown to over 6000 households. From an Irish and Italian church we have grown to reflect the world church as people from all parts of the globe have joined our church. And from a church marked by an active clergy and passive laity we have grown to be a church where both clergy and laity fully, actively and consciously participate in the life of our church.

On June 8, 2014 (Pentecost) we will mark the centennial anniversary of the first Eucharist celebrated in The Basilica. It will be a celebration of the accomplishments of our founding families. It will be a celebration of all the people who have made us who we are over the course of these 100 years. It will be a celebration of who we are today: great in number, rich in diversity and strong in our faith. And most importantly, it will be a time to call down the Holy Spirit once again to give us the peace, the wisdom and the strength to continue on this rich path for many more years to come.

So, do join us for the celebration of Pentecost on June 7/8. We will have extra music at all Masses followed by festive hospitality. And please wear your favorite red outfit or best ethnic garb.

Come Holy Spirit, Enlighten our hearts and our minds.

When I celebrated my first communion I was given many gifts. I can remember the joy I experienced at receiving statues of the Infant of Prague, of Our Lady of Fatima and of Saint Joseph. My absolute favorite was a statue of Mary wearing a beautiful dress in pastel colors. She had pretty blond hair and there was a built-in mechanism that played Immaculate Mary. I was quite surprised that my friends in school did not share my enthusiasm when I brought this statue for show and tell. Regardless, I was happy to have received the greatest number of saintly statuary and I was quite pleased with the singing statue of Mary.

At the beginning of the month of May, which is dedicated to Mary I fondly remember my singing Mary statue. She is now safely packed away in my brother’s attic with other religious relics I left behind when I came to the United States. When I first got her, she received a place of honor in my bedroom. She stayed there until I learned that Mary in real life would neither have had blond hair nor worn pastel colored flowing robes and she did not reveal herself as the Immaculate Conception until fairly recently.

Mary was Jewish, the mother of Jesus and the wife of Joseph, who is said to have been a carpenter. She was born to a poor family and led a hard life managing her household. She must have worried about her son whose cross she flanked and whose lifeless body she cradled. She was also the one who recognized Jesus as the Messiah before most everyone else. And she testified to this not only during her lifetime, but also after she was assumed into heaven during her many apparitions.

I have always been fascinated by these apparitions. It seems like Mary has always known that by appearing in the image of the people she could win them for her son. For instance, when she appeared in Mexico as “Our Lady of Guadalupe” she appeared as an Aztec princess. Thus the Aztec people could recognize themselves in Mary and Christianity became more accessible. In Vietnam she appeared as a Vietnamese woman. In Africa she appeared as African. In Belgium, she appeared as a Belgian with blond hair and wearing a pastel dress. Indeed, Mary has taken on the shape, color and form of most every woman in our world.

Today, my entire house is filled with religious art. There are images of Mary from all around the world and none of them sing. Like the many representations of Mary in The Basilica, they are reminders of the many faces of Mary, mother of the church and of the many faces of all mothers of our world. They are a constant invitation for us to commit ourselves to a greater love for one another, a totally gratuitous love exemplified by the mother of Jesus as well as by our own mothers.

 

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