Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’ & Simeon’s Prophecy

I had the wonderful opportunity of seeing my wife’s favourite piece of art on Friday. After I was done work at the Vatican Library, we popped over to St Peter’s, and I beheld Michelangelo’s Pietà. This is one of the Florentine sculptor’s greatest masterpieces, alongside big, naked David, horny Moses, and the Sistine Chapel. I present it to you (in my wife’s own photo!) as large as this WordPress theme will allow:

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When I beheld this milky, silky, polished chef-d’oeuvre, I could not help but be overcome by emotion. It is a striking, powerful image. Mary is cradling her Son in her arms.

Yet he droops lifelessly.

Mary gestures to the viewer in her grief, her eyes cast down towards her lifeless, spent Son.

Here, at the Pietà all the sorrows of the world meet.

This is the depth of the reality of all human sorrow, compounded because this Son of hers was the Son of promise.

And what does that promise contain?

Because of its inclusion in Roman Rite Compline and Cranmer’s Evensong, the Song of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis, is the most famous part of the old Israelite’s encounter with Christ in the Presentation in the Temple (Lk 2:29-32). However, Simeon also speaks a prophecy:

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Lk 2:34-35, NKJV)

When I looked upon the Pietà, upon the grief of the Mother of Our Lord, upon the immediate, earthly aftermath of the terrible necessity that was wrought for our salvation, that verse struck me with force and vigour.

a sword will pierce through your own soul also

Here sits Mary, full of grace. Full of sorrow. For her Son is dead.

Saint of the Week: St. Joseph the Carpenter

Given that it is Christmastide, I felt that looking at a member of the Holy Family was only appropriate.

According to tradition, Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage at the time of his betrothal to Mary.  This handy detail allows Jesus to have brothers and sisters and for his mother to remain a perpetual virgin.*  Whether we believe this tradition or not, it is most likely that St. Joseph was older than the BVM.  That’s how things were — girls got married as soon as possible and were pretty much pregnant as earlier as biologically able.  Unfortunately.

Joseph lived in Nazareth at the time of his betrothal to the BVM, and nearby was another village (the name of which escapes me) that had been trashed in a riot.  This provided steady work for people in the carpentry business.  Stuff needed to get built.  It is entirely likely that he was doing work there; at this stage in history, most people who laboured with their hands were essentially day-labourers.  Show up at the site or the market and get hired, then paid at the end of the day (like that parable Jesus tells about the guys who work in the vineyards).  I imagine St. Joseph to have been one of these.

So here’s Joseph, our hard-working contractor, putting in many hours a day, preparing his household for the arrival of his wife.

Who, it turns out, is already pregnant.  Joseph, being a righteous man, decided to put her away quietly.  It is the ‘quietly’ part that is due to his righteousness, not the putting away.  By doing things quietly, he could reduce shame (a big deal in societies more ‘Eastern’ than ours) and possibly even save her life.

St. Joseph’s reaction to the pregnancy of the BVM was probably like this hymn from Christmas Eve sung by the Orthodox:

Joseph said to the virgin:
What has happened to you, O Mary?
I am troubled; what can I say to you?
Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me!
What has happened to you, O Mary?
Instead of honour, you bring me shame.
Instead of joy, you fill me with grief.
Men who praised me will blame me.
I cannot bear condemnation from every side.
I received you, a pure virgin in the sight of the Lord.
What is this that I now see?

Joseph received his response from an angel in a dream who told him that the child from from the Most High.

What follows is what makes St. Joseph of Nazareth really stand out for me.

He decided to face the shame and not divorce Mary and raise this child on his own.

Now, much is made of the BVM given that she is one of the few (if not the only) biblical persons who receives a message from on high and says, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  However, to believe that Jesus is something special takes a lot less faith when you are the person who conceives virginally.  But when you are the dude betrothed to the woman, to accept in faith the words of the angels requires larger faith.

I’m not saying Joseph had larger faith than the Theotokos.  I’m just saying it takes a lot more trust to accept that the child is from God if you aren’t the person carrying the child in your womb.  That’s all.

St. Joseph’s faith was not blind faith; he had a dream to go on.  Dreams are kind of a big deal in the ancient world, and I think there’s more to them than Freud has led us to believe.  But that’s a discussion for another time.  Nevertheless, I think this saint is an example of how great our faith can be.  We need to trust God and act accordingly.  This is the great example of Joseph of Nazareth.

The next and last we hear of Joseph in the biblical record is when Jesus is “lost” at the Temple.  Tradition tells us that he died during our Saviour’s youth.  I see no reason to question, given that he is never again mentioned in the Gospels.

Let us pray to the Lord of Hosts for faith like that of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth.  May we know Him well enough to trust Him so deeply.

*The needlessness of this doctrine and the fact that it makes Joseph into some sort of strange creature the like of which I know not are an obstacle for me swallowing the bitter pill of Orthodoxy, one reason why I have yet to sail up the Aegean to Byzantium.

Saint of the Week: Thomas Cranmer

Cranmer was to be last week’s saint, since his memorial was on Wednesday, March 24. But I kept doing other things in the evening and reading systematic theology during my spare time at work.

Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489, and was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556. He studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, receiving a Master of Arts in 1515 having received a classical education in his Bachelor’s degree but focussing on Continental humanists, including Erasmus, in his Master’s degree. He was also a lifelong collector of books by the mediaeval Scholastics. In 1526 he received his Doctorate of Divinity.

Throughout the 1520s, he was involved in the intellectual discussion and dispersion of Lutheran ideals and ideas amongst the scholars of Cambridge.  In 1526, he entered the King’s service on an embassy to Spain, and in 1527 put his able hand to the task of annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

In 1531, while Cranmer was still working on the annulment with some other scholars who were instrumental in finalising the ideas involved in 1534’s Act of Supremacy, he met Simon Grynaeus, a Swiss humanist and Zwinglian.  Grynaeus and Cranmer were to become friends, thus strengthening Cranmer’s later relationship with the Swiss and Strasbourg reformers.

1532 marked Thomas Cranmer’s presence in the Holy Roman Empire as ambassador.  In Germany he saw firsthand the Protestant Reformation in action.  During his time in the German court of Charles V, Thomas Cranmer moved further into the Lutheran camp.  In October of this same year, Thomas Cranmer received a letter appointing him Archbishop of Canterbury, due no doubt to his work on the King’s annulment, given how few ecclesiastical positions he had yet held.

Nevertheless, despite opposition from various parties in England, Cranmer sought to spread Reformation ideals in the English church, especially after 1534.  In the following years of Henry’s reign, the work of Reform moved slowly in England, although Cranmer appointed reformers such as Hugh Latimer to important positions, and the King commissioned the Great Bible.

The spread of worship in English, however, was not moving apace until Edward VI’s reign when the people would receive the sacrament in an English service.  Nonetheless, at this time Cranmer produced an English translation of the Litany in 1544.  This Litany includes prayers for God to deliver His people from “the tyranny of the bisshop of Rome and all his detestable enormyties”.

In 1547, Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward VI.  Now worship in the vernacular was able to take off.  The first liturgical text produced by Thomas Cranmer was the Litany,  with the publishing of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  This was followed by a second Prayer Book of 1552.

Thomas Cranmer also worked to produce a Book of Homilies (the present form also has homilies of John Jewel [15222-1571]) in accord with Reformation teaching for use in churches to instruct the people on various subjects such as reading the Bible, how to gain salvation, against whoredom, and the like.  This Book of Homilies was not approved by the Bishops until 1547.

The Reformation was able to spread during Edward’s reign through the media of the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer, and the English Bible.

And then in 1553, Edward VI, a sickly teenager, died.  His older sister Mary succeeded him.  Mary was a Roman Catholic.  Under her reign, the Reforms of Edward were suppressed and the Church of England returned to communion with the Church of Rome.  The tables were turned, as any reader of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs knows — no more Carthusian abbots were drawn and quartered in London’s streets.  Instead, the Protestants were to feel the flames of the stake.

Thomas Cranmer had, during Henry’s reign, come to the belief that the monarch was the rightful head of the church, and that it was contrary to his role as a bishop to counter the monarch’s headship — hence the lack of a BCP under Henry, who was not in the Reformation for religious but economic, political, and legal reasons.  Finding himself under a Catholic monarch, Thomas Cranmer was in a bit of a sticky position.

On March 20, 1556, Thomas Cranmer watched in Oxford as Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake for heresy.  He proceeded to sign fourteen copies of his recantation of the heresies of Martin Luther with some Spanish friars standing by.

On March 21, Cranmer was escorted to St. Mary’s Church where his public recantation was to take place.  And there, Thomas Cranmer, like Latimer and Ridley before him, played the man, declaring, “And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine.  And as for the sacrament–”  Here Cranmer was interrupted and taken away to be burned.

As Cranmer burned, he thrust his right hand into the flames, holding there and saying, “This hand hath offended,” for that hand had signed his recantations.  And so Thomas Cranmer, crafter of the Book of Common Prayer passed from this life to the next.

His greatest contribution of all time was no doubt the BCP.  Tune in sometime after Easter for some thoughts on its awesomeness.