Tag Archives: Christ

Take Up Your Cross and Suffer Through This Exhibition

If you happen to be traveling on the Tube, London’s subway network, during this season of Lent, you may come across some rather provocative billboard images of Jesus on the train platforms.  These posters are advertising an exhibition of the work of a number of contemporary artists called “Stations of the Cross”.  While the pieces are designed to grab the viewer’s attention, in the end one has to reject their premise, and question why a Christian church would host such an exhibition.

Marylebone is the home of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Sherlock Holmes, and Madonna, among others; this scrivener lived there during graduate school.  It is an area consisting primarily of rather large Georgian and Regency-era terraced houses; among the churches in this former village, now very much a part of central London, the most prominent is the Anglican church of St. Marylebone, built between 1813-1817.  This is the venue for the “Stations of the Cross” show, and one wonders what former members of this church – Charles Wesley, for one – would have made of it.

In looking over the images chosen for the exhibition, some are well-executed, thought-provoking examples of contemporary artists considering the story of Christ’s Passion. There is a cleverly telling piece in which, instead of placing Christ before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, He is stood before a panel on a show like “American Idol”, to judge whether He lives or dies. It is not hard to imagine that He would be condemned by our 21st century pop culture just as He was by 1st century culture.  Similarly, there is a beautifully executed, geometric rendering of the Crown of Thorns that one could see being used as, for example, a stamping on the cover of a hymnal or prayer book.

The majority of the images however, are simply poorly-executed, head-scratchers, or just plain dumb. For example, several of the artists have chosen to make allusions to the practice of capital punishment, and as someone opposed to its use, I understand the point they are trying to make.  Yet putting Jesus in an electric chair denies the lengthy suffering that was crucifixion, which medically speaking is death brought about by asphyxiation. One wonders whether they would portray Jesus being aborted as a baby, or euthanized as an old man, but one can imagine why not.

Another artist has employed altered images of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the French revolutionary Marat, dead in his bathtub. Given that Marat was hardly a Christian, – and that’s putting it mildly – it makes no sense why his image would be the basis for this manipulation. Jesus was not put to death for whoring about while writing awful poetry. And then there is a photograph called “Phat Jesus”, which is simply tired old pornographic trash emanating from a diseased mind, the sort of thing that we’ve all seen before in supposedly edgy art magazines.

The apparent moral problem in criticizing this display is that the impetus for the event is a good one. The exhibition hopes to raise funds in the ongoing search for a man who has been missing for ten years, and to raise awareness of a group dedicated to helping find missing people.  Dare one criticize an event that hopes to achieve something good?

Unfortunately, yes, but it must be said, not really because of the artists themselves. The fact that moral relativist artists can create and put on such a show should not surprise anyone: blasphemy is a cliché that has been worked to death since the dawn of Modern Art, for the simple reason that Christians are an easy target, and tend not to fight back. The real issue is why a Christian church would agree to host this exhibition in the first place, particularly during Lent. I will leave that to the reader to decide.

The best that can be said for this exhibition, it seems to me, is that if you are in London and want to engage in a penitential act during this season of Lent, go along and see how much the world continues to hate Jesus. He told us this would happen of course (St. John 15:18), and in an age which is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, it is perhaps not a bad thing to be reminded of that fact. Clearly this is something that the powers that be at St. Marylebone forgot.

"View of St. Marylebone Church" by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

“View of St. Marylebone Church” by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

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Words to Keep Close

Martin Jahn (c. 1620–c. 1682) is probably not a name with which you are familiar, and that is perfectly fine.  For to be honest until yesterday I was not familiar with his name either.  Allow me to rectify that for both of us, gentle reader.

During the Offertory at Sunday Mass, our choir performed what is commonly referred to in English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J.S. Bach.  However instead of using the English adapted lyrics, with which most of us are familiar, particularly around the Advent and Christmas season, the choir sang the words of the original, earlier text by Jahn.  Fortunately, our parish music director prepares handouts for Mass each Sunday containing not only the listing of the hymns which the congregation will be singing, but also the texts of the pieces which the choir sings during communion, etc.

Reading the unfamiliar words to this very familiar music, I was struck not only by their intimacy, but their hopefulness in the face of suffering. Admittedly, all translations are but an approximation of an original text.  As anyone who has studied foreign languages knows, some of the subtlety of meaning is lost when a work is adapted to another tongue.  That is particularly true in areas such as poetry or in lyrics, for oftentimes a composer has deliberately chosen a certain word or phrase to express a host of ideas in an economy of language.

However even in their admitted imperfection in English, this short, simple reflection of one man’s love for Christ is powerful in its sincerity: it gets down to the heart of the matter. If you have ever been in the place where Jahn clearly must have been, in order for him to be able to so succinctly express the nature of worry and pain overcome by hope and love, then this will speak to you, or to someone you love who may be going through a tough time.  (And if you have not experienced such things yet yourself, just wait.)

In short, these are words to keep close.

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe, o wie feste halt’ ich ihn,
daß er mir mein Herze labe, wenn ich krank und traurig bin.

Jesum hab’ ich, der mich liebet und sich mir zu eigen giebet,
ach drum laß’ ich Jesum nicht, wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.

[Translation]

Well for me that I have Jesus, o how strong I hold to Him,
that He might refresh my heart when sick and sad am I.

Jesus have I, who loves me and gives to me His own,
ah therefore I will not leave Jesus, when I feel my heart is breaking.

Cristo

Detail of “The Descent from the Cross” by the
Master of the von Stauffenburg Altarpiece (c. 1454-1460)
Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France

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St. Martha and the Apostolate of Polite Society

Many years ago I recall reading a story about Red Cross volunteers in Britain during the War.  As they were being assigned tasks, the society women who had presented themselves were appalled at the roles they were being asked to take on.  Many of these well-to-women were being told to do extremely menial, often very dirty jobs, which would normally be assigned to their domestic servants or manual workers.  Folding linen or arranging flowers was one thing, but to have to get down on one’s hands and knees and scrub out toilets (and what tends to fall onto the floor surrounding toilets) was simply beyond their comprehension.

Realizing that nothing was going to be accomplished this way, a duchess who was the highest-ranking society lady among them – possibly the Duchess of Devonshire but I cannot recall for certain – volunteered to scrub out the latrines.  The ladies around her then realized that if a woman of such a high place in society would willingly humble herself in this way, then they themselves could not but swallow their pride and imitate her example.  After that, things rolled along smoothly.

I was thinking about this tale this morning in reflecting on the life of St. Martha of Bethany, whose feast day is today.  St. Martha as the reader may well know was  the sister of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus, who the Bible tells us were all friends of Jesus.  Indeed, St. John specifically tells us that Jesus “loved” these three siblings, meaning they were very close friends indeed.

Unfortunately, St. Martha is thought of in an off-hand sort of way.  We get the impression that she was a fastidious hostess, a kind of Margo Leadbetter of Scripture, because of Christ’s famous admonition to her of, “Martha, Martha…”, when she was striding about the house getting things ready, while her sister sat at the feet of Jesus.  We think about that instruction and how it applies to us at times, perhaps, but we forget that Christ’s message was first applied directly to St. Martha herself, and that she must have taken in His words and thought deeply about them.

In focusing on that particular part of what we know of St. Martha’s life, we ignore what happened later.  Keep in mind that St. Martha is recognized as a saint in Heaven.  And she did not reach that point by throwing the best dinner parties in suburban Jerusalem, but rather as a result of the fact that she rose to the occasion by humbling herself.

After the death of her brother, when Jesus returns to Bethany to pay His respects, St. Martha does several highly unusual things for someone of her (assumed) character:

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
[But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”

(St. John 11:20-28)

Note that when she learns Jesus is arriving in Bethany, St. Martha was in official mourning.  No doubt she was dressed in black, receiving visitors, and performing all the duties which the woman who is the head of a household was expected to perform upon the death of a close relative.  Keep in mind how rigid the social customs and conventions of her day were, and how far more stringent they were under these circumstances compared to today.  

Just to raise a couple of points among many which we could consider, note instead of waiting for Christ to come to her, which would have been the proper and customary thing to do, St. Martha leaves the house full of relatives and guests and comes out to meet Jesus on the road. This would no doubt have been considered extremely improper by her peers. Yet just by that one act, it shows us that St. Martha has internalized Christ’s earlier message to her about knowing when to stop worrying about conventions and social proprieties and start thinking about what people actually need, like the example of the highly proper and socially upright Miss Deborah Jenkins in “Cranford”, walking in a funeral procession alongside a devastated young woman who has just lost her only sibling, in complete rejection of the accepted standards of the time, because she was needed and regardless of her personal feelings on the matter.

And then there is the kicker.  For when Jesus declares that “I am the resurrection and the life,” a statement which is so often reflected upon by Christians in times of crisis, and which we forget was said in the context of this conversation with St. Martha, how does St. Martha respond to His question?  By committing what the chief priests, scribes, and her own neighbors would have considered an act of blasphemy: she declares that she believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and not just that, but the Son of God.

By stating what she did, in public, in front of witnesses, St. Martha could have been stoned to death on the spot.  St. Martha, society hostess, always worrying about things which two thousand years later we would expect someone like Martha Stewart to be fussing over – whether the soup is the right temperature, or if the new linen will be ready in time for her next social event, or whether this new wine is going to be too bold to go with the fish – suddenly finds herself making an extraordinary act of faith that could quite literally have gotten her killed.  She humbles herself and puts her own life at risk, so as to glorify God.

On her feast day then, let us take a step back and look at St. Martha in a bit of a wider perspective than what we often call to mind with respect to her role in salvation history.  There is nothing wrong with having high standards for behavior, speech, dress, etc., or taking care of the needs of life in such a way as to want to do them well.  Yet St. Martha learned, and clearly internalized, what Jesus taught her, which is that one must be willing to put all of that aside, and to humble oneself before God, rather than let the concerns of this world obscure the goal of the next.

And as a postscript, I like to think that St. Martha was allowed by Our Lord to see that British duchess on her hands and knees, scrubbing toilets with as much care as she would normally have put into adorning her own person or arranging flowers in a crystal vase, and that she recognized a bit of herself in it.

Fantin

“White Roses” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1875)
York Art Gallery, York, England

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Never As Good?

With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another.  In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances.  “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.”  I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.

Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader.  Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole.  This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.

This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.

One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it.  Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.

This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely.  What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.

This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief.  It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due.  We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.

Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering.  We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death.  Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering.  In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.

This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.

Judith 8: 25-26, 27

Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise.  Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.

There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come.  It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.


Still from the video for “Never As Good As The First Time” by Sade

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Gardens and Earthly Delights

At dinner last evening with a visiting priest friend, Father mentioned that he had parked a few blocks away from the restaurant, in a residential part of the neighborhood.  He noted the contrast between some of the grand old houses, and the very small ones located right alongside, and how people made an effort in this area to have their gardens look beautiful both for their own pleasure, and for other people to enjoy.  Even having lived in this neighborhood for many years, and a gardening aficionado of sorts, this observation is something that I can occasionally forget.

No doubt we have all had the sensation of reading a novel, or watching a television biography of some famous person, and seeing the exact moment when they forget what they ought to be doing and act out of selfishness and stupidity; we may even shake our heads because we can see what is coming.   Time and again we have seen people in history or heard of characters in fiction forgetting that they should always try to be grateful, and instead deciding to pursue material pleasures for which they have no real need.  And it is interesting to think about how many times a garden has factored into this equation.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve disobey what God told them to do, and both they and we their descendants pay the price.  They had everything they could have wanted, and they should have been grateful for it, but they were not content.  Yet it is by no means the only example from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Having been raised up from nothing, David had been faithful to God’s Will and had been rewarded for putting his trust in the Divine and not in man.  However one night while walking in the rooftop gardens of his palace, he saw Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, taking a bath at her home next door, and he decided that he wanted more than he was permitted to have.  The rest you probably know, or can read in this excerpt from the Second Book of the Prophet Samuel.  There is a similar circumstance involving a garden and a bath in the story of Susanna and the Elders, from the Book of the Prophet Daniel.

We also read in the First Book of Kings how King Ahab threw what can only be described as a childish hissy-fit, when his neighbor Naboth refused to sell his meager vineyard.  The King wanted to convert Naboth’s plot into a garden, probably for the worship of Baal.   Queen Jezebel, not unlike King David, manages to get Naboth killed so that her husband can claim the vineyard for himself, and doom thereafter falls upon the royal family.

The garden as a beautiful place where sin and selfishness can be pursued has fascinated artists throughout the centuries. In his endlessly absorbing masterwork, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) created a stunning triptych, or painting made up of three panels hinged together, representing the Garden of Eden on the left, a central panel with human beings romping about a garden in all sorts of excess, and a right panel depicting the torments of Hell earned through such excesses.  It is a powerful, unforgettable work, easily one of the most important Old Master paintings ever painted.

In a somewhat different vein, in the work of French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) we see a different kind of garden excess, though one which is not necessarily apparent at first viewing.  Rousseau is undoubtedly most famous for his “jungle” paintings, depicting lions, tigers, and other wild beasts crouching in the underbrush of a lush forest, or chasing and eating their prey.  Yet while the artist claimed that he drew his inspiration from having visited the lush jungles of Mexico, in truth he never left France: the exotic flora and animals that filled his work were taken from his observations at Parisian botanical gardens and taxidermy exhibitions.   Rousseau could not be content with just being himself, and instead of being honest decided to make himself into a supposedly more exotic figure.

These are just a few examples of how we human beings tend to indulge our own vanity in lying, gluttony, lust, violence, and so on, in order to get more than our fair share. Even as we acknowledge that this is the case however, let us not be despondent and assume, like those who believe that human beings are nothing more than the species du jour, that all of this is for naught.  For in another garden of course, located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Christ showed how to break that cycle of selfishness.

If you have never seen an olive tree at first hand, or walked through a grove of them in a garden, they are wonderful things, both hideous and lovely at the same time.  The older the olive tree gets, the more gnarled and lumpy it becomes, even as its silvery, elegant leaves have been used for centuries as symbols of peace and friendship, decorating buildings and works of art all over the world.  And the more established the olive is, the more capable it is of regenerating itself and producing fruit when the tree is damaged.  This longevity can be attested to in numerous examples around the world, where olive trees that have been carbon-dated or tree-ring-dated to be thousands of years old, and are still producing bumper crops of olives every year.  This is what a garden is meant to be, rather than a place to act out of greed and selfishness.

The pleasures of a garden are many at this time of year, just before the formal beginning of summer: we can spend the long days enjoying the scents, the colors, and the sounds of life around us.  Certainly, gardens can be a bad thing if they are misused, as a way of engaging in pride at the expense of others, or indulging our own whims and selfishness, as some of the forgoing examples have shown.  Yet in the end like the lives we have ourselves been given, they are not intrinsically evil places, but rather good things we are meant to enjoy and use properly.

Perhaps next time you are out toiling in your own garden, or visiting someone else’s, it may be helpful to stop and consider whether the real delight of the garden is not so much in the taking but rather, as pointed out at the beginning of this piece, in what it gives.


“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Detail of Left Panel)
by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1490-1510)
The Prado, Madrid

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