Tag Archives: Jesus

Good Friday: Be the One

Regular readers may recall my review of Dr. Edward Siri’s book, “Walking with Mary”, which I read while spending the day over at the Dominican House of Studies.  One section of the book which particularly struck me was a story about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  It’s not only related to Scripture, but I think appropriate for this Good Friday.

Mother Teresa had a prayer card with an image of Jesus in suffering on the front.  Below the image it bore a verse from one of the Psalms which we often hear during Lent, particularly on Good Friday or at Stations of the Cross.  Psalm 69 is one of those prophetic Psalms foretelling the “Suffering Servant”, as described more fully in the Book of Isaiah; verse 21 of the Psalm, says, “I looked for one that would comfort me, and I found no one.”

Underneath the image and the quote from the Psalms, Mother Teresa wrote, “Be the one.”

There is something disarmingly simple, but also profound about this juxtaposition.  The call from the Cross, as contained in the Psalm, is answered in the to-the-point response of Mother Teresa. Hers is not simply a pious reaction, but a command to herself.  I liked the combination so much, that I created a Lenten laptop wallpaper with both quotes on it, to remind myself on a regular basis during this season of fasting and penance what I ought to be doing more often all the year through.

Maybe you aren’t called to go out into the slums of a faraway place like Calcutta.  Yet there are people you know who could use some love, some attention, and some comfort from you.  Be the one to bring it to them.

Detail of "Christ Crucified" by Diego Velázquez (1632) The Prado, Madrid

Detail of “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez (1632)
The Prado, Madrid

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Spy Wednesday: There’s No Place Like Hell

In the classic 1900 children’s book and 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a lot of rubbish.

For example, the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  Really? Christ was jeered all the way to his execution on Calvary by crowds of people who, only a few days earlier, were crying out how much they loved him.  What an utter failure He must have been.

Or then there’s Dorothy’s “lesson”, which she learns after getting bumped on the head.  “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she vows, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”  What sort of lesson is that? Enjoy suffocating in the Dust Bowl, Dorothy.

Frank L. Baum, author of the “Oz” books, abandoned Christianity in 1892 to join a sect known as the “Theosophical Society”.  Originally founded for the purpose of studying the occult, it expanded to become one of those mutual admiration societies, where people with more money than sense sit around congratulating themselves on how much more enlightened they are than the rest of us.  Among other things, it mixed the study of dead religions with universalism, racial theories, cosmic evolutionary potential, and so on.

I say all of this because we are at Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, when Judas strikes his bargain to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  We know this is coming, because Judas has been listening to the bad voices in his head for a while now.  The next night, at the Last Supper, we learn from the Gospel of St. John that instead of changing his mind at the last minute while he still could, Judas allowed Satan to enter into his thoughts and actions, and he went off to arrange Jesus’ betrayal that evening.  We also know that Satan hung around long enough to persuade Judas to commit suicide over what he had done, instead of seeking forgiveness.

In his magnificent series of panels “Four Visions of the Hereafter” in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, the great Hieronymus Bosch depicted scenes of what happens after we die.  Two of the paintings deal with Heaven, and the other two with Hell.  In the latter, I’ve always thought that the demons dragging the souls of the damned to their eternal punishment are reminiscent of the Flying Monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.  The difference of course, for Christians, is that unlike Baum’s characters, these fellows are all too real, as Judas found out.  And for that matter, so is the place where they reside, which is where they want us to end up.

With the Easter Triduum beginning tomorrow, you still have time to get to confession. Many dioceses, such as here in the Nation’s Capital, will have confessions tonight through programs like The Light Is On For You.  Check with your local chancery, or call your parish priest to make an appointment.

And for pity’s sake, don’t listen to those trying to tell you that Hell is just an old, scary story, like something Frank Baum might have dreamed up for one of his fairy tales.  Ignore such talk, even if those doing the talking have a bunch of impressive-sounding letters after their name or – even worse – are sporting clerical garb.  Such people are not going to be accountable to you, when it turns out they were wrong.  Because in the end, there’s no place like Hell – and we really, REALLY don’t want to end up there.

Detail of "Hell" by Hieronymous Bosch (1500) Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Detail of “Hell” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1486)
Palazzo Grimani, Venice

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Monday of Holy Week: Following the Right Path

What sort of path are you on right now, as we begin Holy Week?

Yesterday’s Passion reading at Sunday Mass came from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  In St. Matthew’s account, after Jesus is arrested and brought before the chief priests and the elders, He does not respond to their questions and accusations, until the High Priest Caiphas orders Him to answer under oath before God.  In other words, if he but had the humility to know it, Caiphas is ordering God to swear by Himself.

This type of oath, in which God swears by Himself, occurs in a few places in Scripture.  For example, fed up with the selfishness of the Jewish people, God makes the oath, “I swear by Myself” via the prophet Jeremiah, that they will be punished if they do not turn away from their path of unrepentant sin and paganism.  When they choose not to listen, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed.  The Jews are quite literally taken off their path, and forcibly marched off down another: that to exile in Babylon.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac – which of course is paralleled in the Father’s sacrifice of the Son in the Gospels – Abraham humbly and, one suspects, a bit sorrowfully, takes the path up into the mountains in order to do God’s Will.  When he is about to act and kill his son, God stops the sacrifice, and forms His covenant with Abraham.  “I swear by Myself,” God promises, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sands on the seashore, and be a blessing for the whole world.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Caiphas is so intent on protecting his position, that he doesn’t want to hear anything that will make him have to change the path he is on.  He tears his clothes when Jesus tells him the truth, because he is not willing to humble himself, let alone be obedient.  The signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah have been before Caiphas for years, both in the prophecies from Scripture and in the words and deeds of Jesus Himself.  Yet Caiphas has fallen so far off the path of seeking God’s Will in his life, that if he was truly open to considering the possibility that this was the Messiah, he would have been a bit more careful with his words.  For clearly, having God swear by Himself is not something to be taken lightly.

Holy Week is the perfect time to follow the signposts in your life leading you back onto the path of humble obedience to the Will of God.  After all, this is the path Christ Himself trod, and what we as Christians are called to imitate.  And the best way that you can do that this week, is by following the signs to your local church’s confessional.  I’ll be in line there myself, and afterwards, we can all go get back on the right path together.

IMG_20140324_115529

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Seeking the Real Holy Grail

The news media has been a-buzz this week over a new book claiming that the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, is in a museum in the city of Leon, Spain.  Both the research and speculation have been interesting, albeit in a Dan Brown sort of way.  Less interesting has been the criticism from those who dispute the existence of this object.

No serious historian disputes that Jesus Christ lived in Judea in the 1st Century A.D.  The events of the Last Supper which He celebrated with His disciples are recalled not only by the Gospel writers, but even earlier by St. Paul, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, where he describes what he has been told about the Last Supper by the Apostles in Jerusalem.  Some sort of drinking vessel was passed around the table by Jesus, and all present were invited to drink from it.

The form that vessel took is entirely open to debate, because there are no descriptions of it in the Bible, nor are we told what happened to it after the meal was over.  Perhaps it was unremarkable to look at, and was just cleared away with the rest of the dirty dishes that evening.  There is a famous scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy has to pick from a range of different styles of cups and chalices.  Choosing the most simple version, he comments, “This looks like the cup of a carpenter,” as the basis for making his (correct) selection.

However while that assumption seems logical at first, further consideration reveals that Indy has no real basis for that assertion.  Jesus and the Apostles were not at home in Galilee when they celebrated the Last Supper during Passover.  Instead, they were in the upper room of someone else’s home in the city of Jerusalem.  We have no way of knowing how plain or fancy the cup that He passed around was.

Admittedly, there are all kinds of fairy tales surrounding what happened to this object.  In the French and English-speaking world, such stories usually involve King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  However the fact that the object became cloaked in legend, does not mean that the object itself did not exist.  Nor for that matter does it mean that the object does not exist today.

There are many claimants to the title of “The” Holy Grail.  My money is still on the cup currently housed in the Cathedral of Valencia, and not just because I’m half-Catalan.  The central drinking cup of that chalice is an agate drinking bowl probably from Egypt, now surrounded by later, medieval mountings, and which has been dated to around 50 B.C.  That seems a reasonably plausible choice for a special-occasion drinking vessel, used on Passover in the 1st century A.D., in a Near Eastern city like Jerusalem.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure whether any one of the extant vessels claiming the title of “Holy Grail” was used by Jesus.  This latest theory about the cup in Leon is simply a theory, as interesting a theory as it may be.  What we do know for certain is that every time a chalice is used for the celebration of Mass, it becomes, in effect, the Holy Grail.  Jesus’ gift of Himself through the institution of the Eucharist that night is far more important than the existence of any one, historical object, no matter how closely associated with Jesus that object may be.

"The Last Supper" by Jaume Huguet (c. 1450) Museu Nacional D'art de Catalunya, Barcelona

“The Last Supper” by Jaume Huguet (c. 1450)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

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Taking the Right Book: Walking with Mary

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve been trying to make more time for reading actual books lately, as opposed to having nearly all of my reading material come from an electronic screen.  When I started reading “Walking with Mary” by Edward Sri the other day however, I got a few pages in and immediately stopped, because I realized I wanted to read it somewhere other than on the couch.  I saved it to read on a mini-retreat I had last Saturday at the Priory of the Dominican House of Studies here in D.C.; as you will see at the end of this post, it was providential that I did.

In his book, Dr. Sri examines the life of the Virgin Mary from a Biblical perspective, focusing on the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John, and thereby taking us on a spiritual journey along with her, in order to try to understand both her Son and the working of God’s Will in her and indeed in our own lives a bit better.   From the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to the young girl in Nazareth, to the sorrowful mother at the foot of the Cross on Calvary, we are reminded that what we know now, Mary did not know then.  Dr. Sri shows us what a truly great woman of faith Mary was, because she did not know how everything was going to play out, only that God had made a promise: her faith that He would keep His promises kept her going, and can help us to keep going as well.

Dr. Sri takes the time to pause and examine words which, when translated into English, we may not stop to think much about, but which in the original text have a more profound significance.  For example, he explains how at the Annunciation, when Mary gives her “Yes” that God’s Will be done and that she bear the Messiah, the word she uses is not one implying meek resignation, but rather a joyful embrace of what is being asked.  In accepting what God wants her to do, Mary does not simply shrug her shoulders and say, “Sure, okay,” but more like, “Yes! Let’s do this!”

In looking at the life of Christ, Dr. Sri also takes the time to point out some of the thought-provoking parallels that we can pick up by more closely reading and paying attention to the Gospel accounts.  Thus, when Jesus enters the world at the Nativity, he does so in humility, poverty, and suffering, brought about at the hands of the Romans who have not only occupied Israel, but are forcing the heavily pregnant Virgin Mary to travel with St. Joseph to Bethlehem for a census.  Similarly, as Jesus heads to Golgotha, he does so in humility, poverty, and suffering, having been tortured and condemned to death by that same Roman Empire.

Dr. Sri finds many such Biblical bookends for us to consider throughout this very thoroughly-researched, yet highly readable book.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, just as the Infant Jesus is wrapped in linen and laid in a borrowed manger, so Jesus the Man is wrapped in linen and laid in a borrowed tomb.  In St. John’s Gospel, we see that the Virgin Mary is there at the very beginning of Christ’s public ministry, when he performs His first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, and addresses her for the first time as “Woman”.  She is also there at the very end of that ministry on Calvary, when He addresses her as “Woman” for the last time as He sheds his blood.  The way in which the wheels which she set in motion at Cana by asking Him to step into the public eye for the first time, and at last come to their fulfillment on Calvary, is something I had not deeply considered before.  And Dr. Sri’s thoughts on Mary as the new Eve, alongside the significance of wine in the Bible, which he covers toward the end of the book, were extremely impressive.

I spent Saturday afternoon reading this book in the chapel of the Priory, and after finishing it I made my way to the front door to leave.  As I did so I happened to stop to glance at a table across from the porter’s desk, where there are always brochures and handouts for the taking.  There, I just so happened to find a stack of postcards, announcing that Dr. Sri is going to be leading a Washington Archdiocesan mens’ retreat this coming Sunday, March 22nd.  Clearly in taking this particular book along to Dominican House, if I might paraphrase the old knight in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, I had chosen wisely.  While I myself am not going to be able to attend this conference with Dr. Sri, those gentlemen reading this post here in the D.C. area certainly can.

Yet regardless of whether you can go along to meet the man or not, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Sri’s “Walking with Mary”.  If you are seeking some good spiritual reading this Lent, you will not be disappointed. And throughout the year, in the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, Dr. Sri’s book would be a wonderful companion as we go through the liturgical seasons, as indeed is the woman who is its subject.

Detail of "The Visitation" by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (c. 1480) Aachen Cathedral, Germany

Detail of “The Visitation” by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (c. 1480)
Aachen Cathedral, Germany

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