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.
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.
The inspiration is the text of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.
Here we are on the third day of this week, headed inexorably towards Friday. From palms and rejoicing to death and sorrowing. Friday’s long shadow, the shadow of the cross, covers this week for us, even though we know that Sunday and the rising of Christ will come. But before we stand in awe of the risen Jesus like the mosaic in the apsidal dome of Basilique Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre, in Paris, we must pass through Friday, where we come face to face with the wisdom of God, with Fra Angelico’s fresco of Saint Dominic adoring the cross in the monastery San Marco in Florence. This is the wisdom of God—a darkened sky and a bleeding, dying saviour.
This automatically looks like folly to the wise of the world. And let us not fool ourselves here. We are the wise of the world, are we not? We are getting or already have university educations, learning the skills of critical thinking and logic. Some of us are so ‘wise’ we are getting PhDs — the height of worldly wisdom! We are accumulating knowledge and parsing ideas and texts and persons and characters. The whole university project, including New College, is founded upon the importance of reason. So let us not scoff so quickly at the worldly-wise fools who have not accepted Christ, those silly atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Muslims. For we, too, are worldly-wise. We, too, like it or not, are so very often fools.
Think upon this — and I do not mean to scorn the theologian’s trade in what follows; a Classicist and historian by trade, I am nonetheless an amateur in the field of theology — we spend hours and years and pounds of paper and litres of ink to talk about this glorious, wondrous event that occurred on Good Friday all those years ago. What we do, what we have been doing for centuries, amidst the glory and the wonder is, at times, parse the mystery. How does the death of Christ save us from our sins? Why does the death of Christ save us from our sins? What exactly must we do to profit from this death? Not unimportant questions. But not always to the point.
For here is the wisdom of God, the logic of salvation: The immortal dies. The mortal benefits from this death and gains immortality by trusting the immortal who died.
There is no logic here.
This is divine wisdom. It is myth enacted on the stage of human history.
I like reading the books of theology and the books of the mystics and the beauty of liturgies.
Sometimes, however, we think we can pierce the mystery of the cross and what transpired there. Sometimes we think we can figure out, to the most precise degree of logic and computation using the tools of history, philosophy, and philology, how it is that God became a man and died for our sins. But however close we come, we fall short. We cannot fully penetrate this mystery, for it is the divine economy for our salvation. It is the power of God to save the entire human race through his own death and resurrection.
Try as we may, the Cross will forever be a stumbling-block. To ourselves. To our friends. To ‘Greeks’. To ‘Jews’.
Therefore, without ceasing our rational questionings altogether, there are times when we must put the books down. Put our pens and paper down. Close our laptops. Stop parsing mystery and revel in it. Become wise fools for God.
And here we shall find the wisdom of God — a wisdom that is baffling to the wise. A wisdom bound up in the death of an otherwise obscure Jewish carpenter on a cross 2000 years ago. A wisdom entrusted not to those with eloquence or resources but to fishermen. Theodoret of Cyrrhus says, ‘The God of all … overcame the learned through the unlearned, and the rich through the poor, and through fishermen he snared the world.’
And so let us turn aside from those equipped with wealth who take pride in rhetorical skill and join with the humble fishermen of Galilee who had trouble perceiving the meaning behind the miracles and parables of our Lord. Let us take up this stumbling-block, this foolishness, this wisdom of God, and wonder at it. Let us become wise fools.
I have a few ideas to help cure us of our worldly wisdom, to help us enter into the mystery of the wisdom of God as wrapped up and displayed for us in gory glory on the Cross. As an historian and Classicist, they tend to take us back in time to our forebears in the faith.
The hymns, for example, help us stop parsing this mystery — ‘Man of Sorrows, what a name for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim.’ ‘’Tis mystery all, th’immortal dies.’ ‘So I’ll cherish the old, rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.’ ‘…beneath thy cross abiding for ever would I rest, in thy dear love confiding, and with thy presence blest.’
For those so inclined, fear not art. A painting of the crucifixion will have trouble presenting to us Our Lord and Saviour’s majesty—but therein is the glory. The glory of God is found precisely in his weakness, in his willingness to suffer and die as one of us for all of us. A fifth-century theological motto was, ‘One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.’ And he suffered fully God and fully human. In San Marco, Florence, Fra Angelico painted frescoes of the crucifixion in each of the cells for the novices. Before each crucifix was the image of St Dominic in a different posture of prayer.
In the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, there is a Renaissance painting of Christ with the crown of thorns. This was probably one of the first bits of Renaissance art I’d ever seen. And it moved me almost to tears—the exquisite skill of the artist made the thorns look like real thorns in real flesh, the red paint like wet drops of real blood. Here was Christ who saved me. In the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, is a large, exquisite bronze crucifix by Bernini. Just Christ’s body, suspended in the air of the gallery, hanging, dying, his flesh and bones and agony and sorrow on display for all—one of the Holy Trinity was crucified for us. These images were made to drive us to prayer, to remind us of the real cross of history.
Prayer is the gateway to this mystery. Why not pray before an icon or painting? Doing so, you may just become a wise fool.
How else can we become wise fools? Through the world of music. Try Bach’s St Matthew Passion or St John Passion. Listen to Part 2 of Handel’s Messiah. Enter into the world of mediaeval mystic St Hildegard von Bingen through her music as well. It is beautiful and enchanting. Or perhaps the Renaissance is more your style — there is always Thomas Tallis and Alessandro Striggio, whose settings for the Eucharist — that perpetual memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious Resurrection—can stir the soul to worship of Almighty God in potent ways. There are ways music can lift our souls that reason and logic cannot. Embrace them to enter into the mystery of Christ crucified. Find the wisdom of God in music. Become a wise fool.
We should realise that the great theologians were also often great contemplatives. St Anselm of Canterbury, the twelfth-century theologian notorious in many circles today for fleshing out penal substitutionary atonement theory, was also a man of prayer. See the other side of this man through Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation of The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm—we have copies in New College library. He writes in his ‘Meditation on Human Redemption’:
See, Christian soul, here is the strength of your salvation, here is the cause of your freedom, here is the price of your redemption. You were a bond-slave and by this man you are free. By him you are brought back from exile, lost, you are restored, dead, you are raised. Chew this, bite it, suck it, let your heart swallow it, when your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. Make it in this life your daily bread, your food, your way-bread, for through this and not otherwise than through this, will you remain in Christ, and Christ in you, and your joy will be full. (pp. 234-235)
Perhaps St Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ is more your style. Or maybe you’re more Reformed, and these mediaeval people are a bit unsettling. Become a wise fool through John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life — found in the 21st chapter of the Institutes. Find your way beyond simple logic-chopping into mystery. Become a wise fool.
Read and reread the Gospel narratives of Our Lord’s passion. Enter into the story. Join Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John at the foot of the cross. Through the cross we enter into paradise, into the embrace of the Holy Trinity — of a God whose very nature defies worldly wisdom and straightforward logic. Become a wise fool.
Let us return to the words of St Paul:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
Grasp this foolish God, grasp this God who conquers through defeat, who is exalted in lowliness, who dies to bring life, who lived with us to die, who is one yet three. Grasp this foolish God who brings heaven and life and paradise and wonder as close as our very breath. Who is Himself as close as our very breath. He became a human that we humans might become like him — and he wrought this great deed through the foolishness of this stumbling-block that is the Cross.
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.