Pandemic regulations have shifted, so we can now have up to 43.5 people in our sanctuary for religious gatherings! Wishing to advertise tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, I rounded up the image below for use on Facebook:
I chose the photo because of the Renaissance fresco of the Last Supper from San Lorenzo in Milan (a church I visited because its fabric is Late Antique, even if not its decoration). After putting the details below the pic — Holy Communion, 7:30 — I went to type “This is my body…” in the upper left corner.
And then I realised that this blurry photo I took has more going on than I was thinking about. Because there, in the foreground, is a terracotta pieta, of the dead Christ with His mother. I think she’s cleaning His wounds?
Here’s the wild beauty of the Eucharist, friends. The night He was betrayed to suffering and death, the night before He died, Jesus took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body.”
And then, the next day, they took His body, limp and dead, off a Roman cross. They tended His wounds. They placed His body in a tomb.
Jesus also said, “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:55)
That body, that flesh, is present to us, really present, in the Holy Communion. It is a mystery to be received in reverence, as He imparts His very self and the fulness of His grace to us.
Today is the feast of Christ the King. As the title of the Kanye West album says, Jesus is King. Today, the final Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the reign of Christ in a feast instituted only in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. To celebrate this feast, I thought I’d share some snapshots of mine from Rome! 😉
Each of these images has important theological significance, and each of them is important for us thinking of Jesus as King. If Jesus is King, most of us imagine him enthroned as in my first image, a mediaeval mosaic from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. As they would have sung at Santa Maria Maggiore in Lent in the era of that mosaic, Praise to you O Christ, King of Eternal Glory!
But before he was enthroned in glory, Our King was enthroned in death. The ruler of the upside down kingdom slain by the principalities and powers of this present age — thus my second image, an eighth-century (I think) fresco from Santa Maria Antiqua. As a note to art history, pre-Gothic — so, before 1100ish — crucifixion images have Jesus standing in triumph, not hanging in death. For this was our King’s greatest triumph.
But the Orthodox would also call us to remember Our King’s first throne, in this 12th-c image from the church of Santa Pudenziana. Jesus is King, enthroned on His Mother’s lap, a reminder of the theological reality that He was and is fully human with a human mother, just as we have.
This brings me to our final image, of Christ in his mother’s lap one last time. Michelangelo’s Pieta from St Peter’s Basilica. Behold your king.
My own prayer for Christ the King Sunday:
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the King of Eternal Glory. We thank you that we have come through another year as your church. We come to you today at the close of the church year, celebrating your kingship. Help us to remember that at all points in the church calendar — as we recall your birth as a helpless infant, your glory on the mount of Transfiguration, your saving death and resurrection, your glorious ascension, the sending of your Spirit, and your ongoing life in the lives of your saints — help us to remember that at all times you are King. May you come and be King in our hearts, in our families, in our city, in our province, in our nation. You are the one, true King, and citizenship in Heaven is worth more than any earthly citizenship. Rule in our hearts here and now that we may be attentive and worship you, our King and God, in Spirit and in Truth. In your mighty name, we pray, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the 1962 Canadian BCP, we find this for Good Friday:
These Anthems shall be sung or said instead of Venite at Morning Prayer.
BEHOLD the Lamb of God, / which taketh away the sin of the world. St John 1. 29.
He was wounded for our transgressions, / he was bruised for our iniquities:
The chastisement of our peace was upon him / and with his stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53. 5.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, / and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 St John 4. 10.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, / and honour, and glory, and blessing. Revelation 5. 12.
The Venite is Psalm 95, the opening canticle at Morning Prayer, if you were wondering.
BEHOLD the Lamb of God, / which taketh away the sin of the world.
He was wounded for our transgressions, / he was bruised for our iniquities:
The chastisement of our peace was upon him / and with his stripes we are healed.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, / and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, / and honour, and glory, and blessing.
To close, the Collects for Good Friday:
ALMIGHTY God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before thee for all estates of men in thy holy Church, that every member of the same, in his vocation and ministry, may truly and godly serve thee; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
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:
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.
In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.
Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”). We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews. Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare. Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa. The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.
I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner. The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.
Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force. Behold the Sistine Chapel! Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible! Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta! (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.) Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.
If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church. Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries. So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.
But what good does religion do today? A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.
Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These are recent foundations. Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.
In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”. This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst. If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.
Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.” There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.
Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables. There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns. Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug. The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.
These church services are sometimes raucous affairs. I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here. People would often still mill about, but not many. Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.
Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night. He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare. We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing. It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.
Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person. That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.