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As I was pondering our Lenten call to greater generosity I was reminded of a Russian folktale about charity and the lack thereof. The main character in the story is an aging woman who lived on the edge of a small village. She had neither family nor friends and was not very kind. As a matter of fact, children and adults alike were afraid of her. Not surprisingly, she died alone and that is how she would have wanted it.
After her death she found herself in hell. Thinking that she deserved better she complained and insisted that she should be accorded a place in heaven. St. Peter was consulted, but he was unable to find any reason in the Book of Life that would allow the woman into heaven. Because she would not stop complaining St. Peter eventually asked God about the situation. God told Peter to review her case in greater detail and pour over her entire life.
Thankfully, St. Peter was able to find something that remotely resembled a good deed. One day, a beggar had come to her home asking for food. She was working in her garden at the time and just pulled out some rotten onions intending to toss them. Annoyed by the beggars request she threw the bad onions at him so as to chase him away. The beggar, gratefully accepted the onions and ate them. God and St. Peter decided that though she might not have intended to do so, in effect, she had fed the hungry.
Because of this one deed, God asked St. Peter to pull the woman out of hell using the onions she had thrown at the beggar. Holding onto the onion the woman was pulled out of hell, slowly but surely. When the other people in hell realized what was happening they held on to the woman so they too might be pulled out of hell. And so it seemed that by virtue of the one unintended good deed everyone would be saved from hell as slowly but surely the woman and everyone who was holding on to her were pulled out of hell.
Soon the woman noted that other people were profiting from her good deed. Fearing that the onion would break under the weight she started to kick and scream causing everyone else to fall down. It looked as if she and she alone was going to be saved. However, not the weight but her uncharitable kicking caused the onion to break. As she caught a glimpse of heaven she fell back into hell where she remains to this day.
Something to ponder...
A Spiritual Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
As humans, we have a deeply rooted need to see, touch, and experience places of personal, historic or religious importance. Football fans for instance, think nothing of crossing the country to visit the football stadium at Notre Dame and to touch the statue of Knute Rockney. Many Catholics have a pilgrimage to Rome, Lourdes or the Holy Land on their bucket list. Jews, Christians and Muslims alike visit Jerusalem, an important location on the spiritual map of all three major monotheistic religions.
Driven by the desire to walk where Jesus walked and to pray in the places where he suffered, died and rose from the dead early Christians from around the Mediterranean traveled to the Holy Land. One of the most famous among these early pilgrims was St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. She provided the resources for the construction of churches over the Holy Sites and brought many holy relics back that are still venerated in Rome today. It is believed that they include parts of the Holy Cross, the crown of thorns and the stairs Jesus used on his way to Pilate to name just a few.
During the Middle Ages, the number of pilgrims to the Holy Land increased substantially. Christians not only desired to visit the Holy Sites they were also determined to keep them out of the hands of non-Christians. Regardless of their intent, those who returned to their homelands brought back compelling stories and vivid descriptions of those Holy Sites.
These captivating stories told in times of pestilence, famine and war resulted in a growing emphasis on the salvific passion of the Lord. Shrines were built to commemorated and honor Jesus’ suffering and death. Sometimes these shrines comprised a series of chapels reminiscent of the different Holy Sites in Jerusalem. There, people identified with Jesus’ pain and found solace in his suffering which brought salvation. It should be noted that the Franciscan Friars who promoted pious practices were instrumental in the quick spread of the devotion to the Lord’s Passion.
Though the underlying intent was similar the way this devotion was celebrated differed from region to region. Thus the Stations of the Cross developed with variations in the number of stations ranging from 7 to 30. The fourteen Stations of the Cross we know today were codified by Pope Clement XII in 1731.
These traditional Stations are still most popular yet others exist as well. Most notable are the Stations introduced by Pope John Paul II on Good Friday, 1991in the Coliseum in Rome. This version differs both in content and in number from the traditional 14 Stations. In terms of content, Pope John Paul’s stations are entirely based on the Scriptures. Such stations as “Jesus meets Veronica” or Jesus’ three falls which have no Biblical reference have been replaced. By ensuring their Biblical foundation the late pope’s intended to make the Stations accessible to all Christians. In terms of number, Pope John Paul II added one more Station: the Resurrection. His reasoning was that without the Resurrection, the passion and death of Jesus make absolutely no sense.
Unlike Saint Helena, most of us will not have the opportunity to ever visit the Holy Sites in Jerusalem. The Stations of the Cross provide us with a great alternative. As we physically walk from station to station meditating on the meaning of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection we are able to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Sites in Jerusalem.
As we continue our Lenten journey toward Easter, please join us on the Fridays of Lent for the celebration of the Eucharist at 5:30pm in the St. Joseph Chapel, followed by a soup supper in the Teresa of Calcutta Hall at 6:00pm and Stations of the Cross at 7:00pm in The Basilica.
Growing up I dreaded Lent. I did not particularly care to fast and abstain from things I enjoyed. What was the point? More emphasis on prayer seemed impossible. Almsgiving I did not quite get. Banning all decorations from church and covering statues with huge cloths seemed silly. And the Lenten sermons were downright scary. It all made for an unpleasant and gloomy experience. I had the sense that a dark cloud covered me for six weeks as I lived under the heavy burden of Lent, trying to do everything I was supposed to do.
It took me a while to understand what Lent was really about. My first mistake was that I thought Lent was all about me. I had to pray more. I had to give up things. I had to give alms. I failed to realize that Lent was not about me, but rather about the entire body of Christ. My second mistake was that I idolized the disciplines of Lent: praying, fasting, almsgiving while I failed to see that these were mere mechanisms toward the greater goal of bringing about a change of heart for the betterment of the Body of Christ.
Lent helps us to break out of the safety of our comfortable and self-centered world so we may encounter those around us. Our Lenten prayer then is not to be about ourselves. Rather, we pray for the well-being of others and we pray that we may be more generous toward others. Our Lenten fasting is not about depriving ourselves but rather about embracing a simpler lifestyle which in turn profits those who are in need. Our Lenten almsgiving is not about the satisfaction of giving from our excess but about freeing ourselves from worldly possessions which in turn allows others a greater share in the world’s riches.
Recently, Pope Francis asked a very poignant question: do we toss alms at a beggar, from afar or do we look him in the eyes as we place the money in his hands. This seemingly simple question touches on the essence of our Lenten journey. The moment we look a beggar in the eyes and touch her hand she becomes a person rather than a problem. It takes little effort to give alms. It is much more difficult to acknowledge the person asking for alms. Yet in that moment, in that encounter we cannot but be changed and become more like Christ.
Our Lenten experience will be fruitful only when we turn toward one another, look one another in the eyes, touch one another’s hands and recognize that all of us together make up the one Body of Christ. Once we truly embrace this, then we will be ready to fully celebrate the Easter mysteries.
First, early Christians displayed a general timidity toward imagery at best and engaged in the occasional full-fledged period of Iconoclasm at worst. It was not until the second council of Nicea (878) that matters were settled once and for all. After tumultuous debates, this council not only denounced iconoclasm it also called for the depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints with the admonition that when one adores an image one really adores the one represented by the image.
Second, the death of Jesus on the cross was neither expected by his followers nor was it readily embraced. Death by crucifixion was one of the worst condemnations. Roman citizens, e.g. could not be punished by crucifixion. In a sense, the cross was experienced as a scandal and an embarrassment. So they concentrated on the Resurrection, rather than on the death of Jesus.
Gradually the Christian community came to embrace the scandal of the cross as the paradox of the mystery of salvation. By the early 3rd century the cross had become closely associated with Christianity. Clement of Alexandria who died c. 215 referred to the cross as τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον or the Lord's sign. And according to Tertullian who died c. 225 Christians are crucis religiosi or devotees of the Cross.
Today the cross is ubiquitous and it is undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol in the entire world. We top our church steeples with crosses. We hang crosses in our homes, in our cars and around our necks. We even tattoo crosses on our bodies. Most often this is done in good faith and in good taste. Sometimes it is done in a misguided attempt at unfortunate fashion. In some instances the cross is intentionally desecrated.
Let’s take consolation in the fact that by the cross we have been saved and nothing can take that away, not even ill-advised use or worse, malicious abuse.
Is there such a thing as bad sacred art?
Living in the proverbial ivory tower I was convinced that only “high art” could be considered sacred art. The occasional accusation of elitism had little impact on my thinking. Surely, no-one could ever deny that such world famous art as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are sacred art of the highest quality? And who would dare to argue that glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary were sacred art? The lines between good and bad sacred art were clear to me and they needed to be drawn.
Thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe and all she stands for I became less rigorous and more forgiving when it comes to sacred art. Nevertheless, not everything goes. I still hold that there indeed is such a thing a bad sacred art.
When considering sacred art I look for three qualities. First, sacred art needs to be authentic art. This requires an authentic esthetic as well as the use of authentic materials. In the past I thought certain esthetics or styles superior to others. Today I realize that the church is quite correct when upholding that there is no superior style, but that each period and region necessarily provides its own form of authentic art in response to the needs of each specific time and place.
Second, sacred art needs to have a sacred message. This is easily accomplished in figurative art that depicts the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints. But what about abstract art that deals with such religious notions as light and darkness or life and death? Can this be considered sacred art? Since certain abstract art forces us to deal with deeply religious matters like life and death it truly has a sacred message, though this may not be obvious to everyone, at least not at first.
Third, sacred art needs to be able to communicate its sacred message. In other words, people need to be able to be inspired by sacred art and receive its sacred message. What makes this aspect of sacred art difficult to grasp is that all of us have different intellectual interests and spiritual sensibilities. As a result we are moved by different kinds of art. Some people may be inspired by a bad print of bad religious art while they are supremely untouched by a great work of sacred art. Other people may find abstract art intensely spiritual while a graphic depiction the martyrdom of an obscure saint, though by definition sacred does nothing for them. This reality ought to make us more generous when considering sacred art because the fact that one person is spiritually moved by an image does not necessarily make it sacred art. At the same time, the fact that a person is not moved by a certain image does not necessarily make it bad sacred art. In either case, the beholder should not absolutize his or her personal experience of the art.
So, what to do about the questionable religious art you harbor in your home? Please consider the three above mentioned qualities of sacred art. Should you find your art lacking I suggest you do one of two things. Either you store it with your beloved, yet secret velvet image of Elvis Presley. Or you send it to me and who knows, one day it may appear in an exhibit. And as my friend and I discovered, when placed in a glass vitrine under beautiful lighting, what was once thought a mere tchotchke may turn out to be fine art.
“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr with the traditional blessing of the throats.
The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.
From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.
Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats on his feast day. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat and to present such ailments.
According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Thus two candles are used during the blessing of the throats. These candles are blessed the previous day on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. They are often held together by a red ribbon and placed around the neck of the person being blessed. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise.
Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing not unlike other sacramentals such as the sprinkling with Holy Water remain popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.
The feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2) or Candlemas is one of the lesser known feasts in our church today. Its history is complex and rich yet because it most often falls on a weekday very few people even are aware of it. Nevertheless, I have very fond memories of this feast which go back all the way to my childhood.
Our family would attend early morning Mass on that day. Upon entering the church we received a candle, one per family. After the priest said a prayer and sprinkled Holy Water we walked around the church in procession. As the oldest child I was tasked with carrying our family’s candle. My current fondness of processions probably dates back to those Candlemas celebrations when I carried the candle under the watchful eye of my parents and the envious glances of my siblings. After Mass we were encouraged to take our candle home and to care for it with reverence. The priest told us to light the candle in times of need. I distinctly remember lighting our candle when my great-grandfather was mortally ill while we prayed for his recovery. We also found some solace in this candle once he died. We even would light the candle and huddle around it during bad storms. It made us less afraid.
Many years later, when living in a Benedictine abbey we celebrated the day with even greater ceremony as the candles were bigger, the procession was longer and the sung psalms were more numerous. We started the celebration in the chapter room. After the lighting and blessing of our candles we processed through the entire cloister into the church while singing Lumen ad revelationem gentium or A light of revelation to the Nations. I can still hear the sounds, see the sights and smell the burning wax which even overpowered the copious amounts of incense used for the procession.
Memories are great yet they need to be interpreted carefully. My childhood experience of the feast reveals profound truths but maybe there was a hint of superstition which tainted the use of the candles at home. Or was it the result of a more generous and less complicated faith? My monastic memories, again revelatory of deep faith undoubtedly suffer from some liturgical romanticism.
As a child I always wished we could keep the candle burning throughout the liturgy and even on our way home. I did not quite know why but I thought it made sense. I still imagine this grand procession of all Christians leaving their respective churches on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or any feast for that matter with lit candle in hand, proclaiming to the world that Christ is the Light and we bear witness to Him in word and deed.
On January 27 we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorating the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. It meant the end of the most horrific and extensive form of Genocide the world has ever known as 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) and 15,000 homosexual people were systematically killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Millions of others were also killed or otherwise victimized.
To most of us those days seem so far off and almost unreal. Therefor this day of remembrance is of the utmost importance. On the one hand it invites us to honor the memory of all the Nazi victims. On the other hand it forces us to confront the evil reality of genocide that still exists in our world today.
A few years ago I happened to be in Paris on January 27. Though I had been there before I had never visit the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, the memorial to those deported from France during World War II. There could be no more fitting day to make a pilgrimage to this impressive yet often forgotten monument in the shadows of the more famous cathedral of Notre Dame. As I made my way, my heart was heavy with worry for the human race, given our capacity to inflict unthinkable horror on one another. I also pondered the impact the Nazis had on my own family.
My grandfather and the other men working in my grandmother’s shoe factory were deported to Nazi camps because she refused to make shoes for the Nazi army. The family home was occupied by Nazi officers. When my grandmother died, I inherited her papers including the moving letters my grandfather sent from the camp as well as letters from one of the officers who had occupied my grandmother’s house. The latter include his thoughts on the horrors of the war and his striking plea for forgiveness.
This extraordinary building captures those who enter it from the very first moment, guiding them down the narrow steps, through the courtyard, into the foyer, to the wall of remembrance and the eternal flame. This journey makes visitors face the reality of the suffering of the 200,000 victims who are honored here and beyond them all human suffering. It also provides a timid light of hope for humanity which too often seems untenable and almost absurd.
My walk back to the hotel that day took me past Notre Dame Cathedral. I could not but enter and light a candle for all those who are suffering at the hand of other people. I stayed for Vespers and prayed “Thy Kingdom Come” with more fervor than ever before.
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.
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.