Art Reflections

by

Peter Fennessy, SJ

On February second, we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord and the Purification of Our Lady. The Mosaic Law required this double ritual, although no child had less need to be dedicated to God than Jesus, no woman less need to be purified than Mary. In paintings like this Presentation by Duccio (1308-11) Joseph carries two turtledoves, the offering of the poor. And artists usually portray him as an old man—their way to affirm, explain and protect Mary’s virginity—but he was more likely to be only five years or so older than she.

Malachi prophesied that the Lord would come into this, the Second Temple, and now He has come, but the Jerusalem crowds and the temple priests did not expect an infant, and they noticed nothing special about Jesus.  Only two people recognized Him at His coming. God had promised Simeon that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah. He saw Him that day, took Him in his arms and proclaimed Him to be the Glory of Israel and the Light of the Nations. The widow Anna also recognized Who Jesus was.  The scroll she holds shows she is a prophetess, and in icons the scroll usually reads: “This child created the heavens and the earth.”

Had we ourselves the willingness to see, our world could be transfigured before our eyes. We might perceive our oneness with each other, Christ in our fellows, earth crammed with heaven, and with Ignatius of Loyola we might find God in all things.

The traditional beginning of the Eastern Orthodox church year, and until Peter the Great the civil year as well, is September 1. The icon for that new year’s day is of Christ reading from the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30).  James Tissot gives us a Western rendition of the event in Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (1886-94). This is the formal beginning of the public ministry of Christ, and the words of Isaiah describe a that ministry as focused on the poor, the oppressed and those in material and spiritual need. The quotation from Isaiah ends with “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus’ fellow townsmen listen attentively at first, with wonder at His wisdom, but eventually they fall away and try to kill Him.

The new year we are now beginning, like every other year, is the acceptable year of the Lord, a time of renewed graces and blessings, for Saint Paul says “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (II Corinthians 6:2). It is always a time to begin again and commit ourselves to the lives and ministries that Christ has called us to, lives and ministries concerned with the poor, the oppressed and the needy, insofar as is within our power. For if we are one with Christ, His ministry is ours as well. This is not just the start of a new civil year, but a new beginning within the sacred history of our lives.

One day Jesus came to the Pool of Bethesda where many sick people hoped to be cured (John 5:1-18). The water seemed especially curative when it was agitated by an influx of new water—although some believed an angel was responsible. One man there had been sick for 38 years but never made it to the water in time. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (1667-1670) shows Jesus, Peter, James and John (as well as the angel descending from heaven). People pitied the poor man for his illness and his naïve responses to Jesus’ questions.

The truth may be different. Jesus asked, “Do you want to be healed?” That’s a no-brainer: the answer is “Yes.” But the man instead made an excuse. Some people literally “enjoy” poor health. So, the man may have enjoyed being sick and didn’t want to be cured. He gets carried to the pool in the morning and home at night. He holds out his hand and gets food and drink and money and pity. He doesn’t have to work; nothing is ever asked or expected of him. That’s not a bad life, if you don’t mind being paralyzed. If he were cured, he’d have responsibilities, he’d have to work, people would ask him to do things rather than treat him with his accustomed compassion. The man hadn’t asked to be cured, and Jesus hadn’t asked him for faith or said comforting words to him. He just commanded him, alone among all the sick there, to get up, pick up his bed and walk. When the authorities asked why he’s carrying his bed on the Sabbath, he blames someone whose name he didn’t know. Jesus later warned the man that if he didn’t stop sinning something worse would befall him. And once he learned Jesus’ name, he turned Him in to the authorities. Is this gratitude? The story may be a warning not to fall in love with sin or sickness, not to prefer the comfort of the dark to the challenges of the light and the fullness of life that Jesus can give us.

The Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece is one of the earliest works of Fra Angelico. Its lowest part, the predella, is composed of five panels portraying a multitude of angels and saints, one panel of which, The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints (c. 1423-24), we see here. And like the 135 saints in John Nava’s Communion of Saints tapestries in the Los Angles Cathedral, no two individuals are the same, each is unique. Our God delights in individuality and uniqueness throughout the whole of creation. Scientists estimate, for example, that in a typical year a million billion snowflakes fall each second, and the chance of two flakes being identical is estimated at zero. How much more so with us, each a unique and irreplaceable individual. Then upon each of these unique individuals the Holy Spirit is given to mold us into the image and likeness of Christ, into a member of His Body of Christ, one with Him. But at the same time, the more we are each conformed to the one Christ the more we each become the unique selves we were called and created to be from all eternity. The Spirit that conforms us to Christ, transforms us also into our essential unique selves.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses this dry-lacquer sculpture of Buddha (probably Amitabha)  (early 7th century), or at least what is left of it. The last fifteen centuries have stripped the statue of much of its pigment and gilding and has damaged it in other ways. It shows the wear and tear of time and so it evokes a serene melancholy and acceptance of the imperfection and impermanence of all earthly things. The loss of its hands in particular suggests an appropriate response to earthly imperfection and impermanence. Buddha taught that suffering is caused by desire and attachments and that the remedy is to stop clinging to what cannot last. Without hands this Buddha cannot cling to anything. It physically exemplifies the detachment Buddha taught.

St. Ignatius Loyola told us that the purpose of his Spiritual Exercises was to free us in our decision-making from the influence of any inordinate attachments. He went on to say that to fulfill our purpose in life we must be indiferentes, that is, free enough to let go of anything we might desire or cling to in order to hear and choose and do God’s will. Although separated by geography, culture, millennia, as well as their philosophical and theological differences, Ignatius and Buddha agree on the essential need for that kind of affective freedom if we are to grow in our spiritual lives.

After the Annunciation, Mary had much to be concerned about. She was going to have a child that was not her fiancé’s, which might mean her being disowned and even stoned to death. But instead of worrying about herself, she walked about 80 miles to help her relative, Elizabeth, who was advanced in years and six months pregnant. Almost all artists who paint this story, the Visitation, depict the moment when Mary and Elizabeth first meet. There are also paintings of the birth of John the Baptist three months later, but it’s often difficult to identify Mary who was undoubtedly there.

You would be hard put to find a painting, other than Robert Anning Bell’s Mary in the House of Elizabeth (1917), that illustrates what Mary did between those two events, probably because what she did was too ordinary. She would have drawn water, baked bread, cooked meals, cleaned house, washed clothes and all the other tasks women did in those days. In Bell’s painting she sews and keeps Elizabeth company, while the older woman reads. Just ordinary tasks, but through them Mary gave Elizabeth three months of her life just as she gave God her whole life through the same sort of deeds. The angel watching through the doorway seems to approve. Our lives are made up of ordinary actions, and if we don’t give them to God, God will have very little of us.

Martha once welcomed Jesus hospitably into her home (Lk 10:38-43), and like a good host began to prepare Him a meal. But in Vincenzo Campi’s painting she seems irritated and upset. It’s because she’s got quite a bit of preparing to do, and she’s been left to do it all by herself, since her sister, Mary, was somewhere else listening to Jesus. But, where were they? Was the title of the painting, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c. 1580), a mistake? It took a while for me to notice, through the serving hatch, Jesus and Mary in the next room chatting peacefully by the fireplace.

We can easily lose sight of Jesus amid the clutter of this painting or the clutter of our activity, even though like Martha we have invited him into our lives and want to serve him with our busy-ness. That would be a good reason for us to retreat from the noise and to seek Him again in the silence of our hearts.

When Martha complains, Jesus will gently remind her that the nourishment of God’s word is more important even than physical food, that Mary has chosen well, and that Martha is distraught because she’s doing too much. There’s a difference between serving God (our way) and doing God’s will. A simple one dish meal would have been enough.

We celebrate on this Good Friday the great victory of Christ over His enemies and ours. He gained that victory by dying on the cross, of which He had proclaimed, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

William Blake drew this pen and watercolor illustration of Michael Foretelling the Crucifixion to Adam (1807) for Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Warrior Archangel gestures to Christ as Adam gazes prayerfully up at His Redeemer. And just as Adam slept when Eve was formed, now Eve sleeps as the new Adam is foretold. That ancient serpent Satan has wound itself around the foot of the cross and slid its head behind the feet of Christ so that the nail that pieced Christ’s feet transfixed the serpent’s head as well.

Also at the foot of the cross on the left lies the body of Death, his face and beard that of an old man. On the right lies Sin, her body that of a young woman. Both of them sprawl upside-down with their arms spread out as if they themselves had been crucified, and so they were. The three Hell Hounds that always attend Sin are now dead themselves, their lifeless heads resting upon her body. The infernal Trinity of Satan, Sin and Death conspired to destroy Christ, but they have themselves been undone forever by their own stratagem.

As Holy Week draws near the question might easily arise, “Why the Cross? Does the Father demand the cruel death of His innocent Son?”

No, the Father doesn’t. We do. Part of God’s plan to create us was that the Son would share our humanity so that we could share His divinity. If, instead of sinning, we had preserved the integrity of the world God created, we would all have accepted Christ totally. There would have been no cross, no violent death.

But, Petrus Christus has painted in his Nativity (1452) a wooden structure that is the world our sin created. On its twin pillars Eve holds “the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe” and an angel drives Adam from paradise. Above, Cain and Abel offer sacrifice, but the “keystone” of the arch is fratricide. And we by our own sin widen the gap between the world God meant and the world we’ve made. Auden’s poem, The Shield of Achilles, poignantly portrays the difference between the two. God foresaw that in our world the Son would meet opposition, persecution and violent death. But Christ came to us anyway, and now as a newborn naked on the bare ground has made himself totally vulnerable to us and our sinful world.

Carl Spitzweg’s Ash Wednesday (c. 1857) portrays a harlequin sitting in a stone cell. His gaudy garb is the very spirit of Carnival: revelry, indulgence, clowning around, carelessness of ourselves, of others and of God.

But Lent has begun. The revelry of Mardi Gras is over. And the harlequin is now deep in thought. He may have been arrested for his behavior or have become repentant of it, so the room might be a prison or monastery cell. Or it might just be that inner chamber that Jesus bides us enter when we pray. The light of God’s grace falls down on him from above. The pitcher of water, his only visible sustenance, suggests a time for fasting as well.

While our lives needn’t have been a riotous carnival, and our Lent won’t be spent in a cell, it is still a time for reflection, and traditionally for prayer, almsgiving and fasting. But it needn’t be somber or grim. Lent, after all, in Old English means springtime, and so a season for new life and love. Quality time given to prayer deepens our love for God. Almsgiving is basically sharing ourselves and our goods with others, which St. Ignatius says is the essence of love. And fasting from any form of overindulgence frees us from its detrimental excess, brings us to a healthy moderation and so is a more authentic self-love. I hope your love this Lent will grow in all these ways. 

As we approach the end of the church year, our daily readings focus more and more on the last days and the King who comes to judge, until we slip into Advent and the King who comes to save. Since Manresa has reopened again, we too are coming to the end—for now at least—of the various online reflections that kept us in touch virtually until we could get in touch more personally.

This icon of the Deisis (late 15th cent.) by an anonymous Byzantine iconographer is the simplest form of the Last Judgment icon. It teaches that we have responsibilities, that our deeds have consequences, that Christ will render the final verdict on our lives and that Our Lady and the saints constantly beg the Lord to have mercy on us. Deisis (DAY-e-sis) means petition, entreaty or supplication. Christ sits on his judgment seat with His mother on His right, the Baptist on His left. They bow toward Him and hold out their hands to Him, pleading and interceding for us.

The icon screens found in many Eastern churches normally contain a Deisis row, where other saints and angels join the Virgin and the Baptist to pray for us. We should be consoled by this constant support. Let us join them to pray for one another. 

An unfortunately unknown colonial artist produced what is probably the most delightful and endearing piece of American folk art, entitled simply and appropriately Baby in Red Chair (c. 1810-1830). The simplicity of the title and the anonymity of the painter befit the image itself.

A small child sits safe, secure and comfortable in its rustic red chair, at peace with the world and everything in it, unconcerned with the troubles of the day or the morrow. Its little folded hands, tilted head, closed eyes and half smile all bespeak contentment and quiet joy. This child accepts confidently and without the need of words that it is loved and cherished, and that all is well and will be well.

It reminds me that fidelity to prayer of any kind can lead us eventually to a prayer of silent presence before the Lord. This child is an image of someone deeply at one with the Lord in prayer, and so totally at peace with all else as well. But we needn’t wait until our prayer develops to such a stage. Christ taught us to strive toward peace: setting aside fears and anxieties, excessive desires and self-esteem, confident in God’s unconditional love and providential care, grateful for all that has been, open to all that shall be, and becoming more childlike even as we age. 

The Pharisees and Herodians, who opposed each other on the issue of taxes, joined together to ask a question to get Jesus into trouble with either the people or the Romans. Peter Paul Rubens pictured His response in The Tribute Money (1610-1615). With St. Peter beside him, Jesus takes the coin of tribute bearing Caesar’s image, points to heaven and fixing an unflinching gaze on them responds his famous “Render unto Caesar.” They react with indifference, rejection, evasion, puzzlement, anger. He escaped their trap. The man in the turban—probably Rubens—looks at us to draw us into the event and to ask what we make of it all.

In the same chapter of Matthew three other questions are posed. Sadducees, who believe in the Torah but not the resurrection, ask a question about the resurrection to reduce it to an absurdity. Jesus refutes them with a Torah text they should have understood better. Pharisees, who are legal fanatics, ask about the greatest law, and Jesus silences them with the perfect reply. Then He questions them. Every Jew knew that the Messiah is the Son of David. Why then, He asks, does David in a well known psalm do what no Jewish father would ever do—call his son Lord (Ps 110:1). They are dumbfounded and cannot reply. 

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He sent his servants to summon the guests, but they wouldn’t come. He sent other servants to stress that the meal was ready, but the guests made light of this, went about other business, and abused and even killed his servants. The king punished those individuals and then sent his servants out a third time into the streets to invite anyone and everyone to come to the feast.

Andrei Mironov, a contemporary Russian artist, chose to illustrate this third invitation in his Parable of the Wedding Feast (c. 2014). The three servants aren’t at the doors of selected individuals, but on the open road, gesturing and crying aloud to all and sundry: young and old, soldiers, beggars, men plowing and sowing, people driving sheep and cattle, carrying baskets and water jugs, conversing and arguing. All are called to come to the celebration. The people circle around the servants, leaving the space between us and the servants open. They do not look directly at us, but we know that we too are invited to the eternal feast in the Kingdom of His Son, not through any merits of our own, but out of God’s infinite graciousness. 

The faithful who attended services at St Francis Church in Borgo San Sepolcro would have seen the front of Sassetta’s altarpiece featuring The Virgin and Child with Saints. The back, however, portrayed his Ecstasy of St. Francis (1437-44), visible to the friars in their choir stalls. The image was meant to inspire the monks to grow in the spiritual life as Francis did, especially making them aware of the need to overcome their sinful inclinations by striving after the opposite virtue.

Francis bearing the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and side stands in the midst of a mandorla, symbolizing the glorious heavenly realm. At his feet are three persons, three animals and three symbols of vice. A young woman gazes into a mirror while leaning upon a boar. While it might be vainglory, the pig clearly indicates lust. A soldier with a sword and a lion indicates pride. A widow with a wolf squeezes a moneybag in a press, which stands for avarice. Around Francis’ head, three angels who stand for the vows of religion counteract those vices. The angel in white with a lily is chastity, the angel bearing a yoke obedience, and the angel in a patched robe poverty.

While these vices and virtues have special meaning for religious who have taken the three vows, we might paint a different picture for ourselves. What are our main weaknesses and temptations? And what are the opposite virtues we need to practice? How would you symbolize your virtues and vices? And is there another saint who might be your patron in this undertaking? 

Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), stolen in 1990 and not yet recovered, shows a surging sea throwing the disciples’ boat upward. The foaming sea, the angle of the mast and the disciple vomiting over the side of the boat all show the violence and danger of the storm. Five disciples in the sunlit prow battle the tempest while nine others in the darkened stern (one in the cabin) have roused Jesus from sleep, frantic for His help.

Five and nine? That’s too many disciples. The figure in green holding his hat and looking directly at us is Rembrandt and the other extra disciples are placeholders for us. Rembrandt often puts himself into his paintings; here he’s a storm-tossed disciple and he wants us to be the same. Just as Ignatius would have us put ourselves into our Gospel contemplations, Rembrandt invites us to imagine ourselves in the boat with him, to experience the wind, the spray, the blown spume, the pitching craft.

He wants us to recall our own experiences of emotional upheaval and trouble, and to remember in all such moments to call upon the help of Christ who is always with us and has power over everything that threatens us. 

Matthew, as a tax collector, was utterly despised. He would have been see a collaborator with the Romans, and like all tax collectors he would have squeezed the last cent he could from everyone. He may have come to hate his work, and longed to be rid of it, but who would accept him? Jesus saw him and, as Pope Francis’ motto says, had mercy on him and chose him. In Caravaggio’s painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600), Jesus stretches out His hand, Adam’s hand from the Sistine ceiling, but now Adam is the new Adam giving life rather than receiving it. The light of grace, traversing the cross in the window, falls full Matthew’s face. Sitting amid four persons—an aggressive servant and a fearful one and two oblivious tax payers—Matthew points to himself in total disbelief that a respected rabbi like Jesus would choose him as a disciple. Caravaggio, a supporter of the papacy, has St. Peter also calling Matthew, but I think Peter was probably saying, “Lord, I said I was a sinner, but this man really is one.” From that moment, as Jesus preached God’s mercy to the crowds, they would see the one-time tax collector among His disciples, and they would know, no matter what their lives had been like, that there was also hope for them. 

The decor of the chancel chapel of the famous Franciscan Church in Florence, Sancta Croce (Holy Cross), is the Cross of Christ. Its stained glass emphasizes the theological and devotional importance of the cross especially to the Franciscans. The walls are decorated with Agnolo Gaddi’s frescos of the Legend of the True Cross. The chapel also houses a relic of the True Cross and The Cimabue Crucifix (1288). The friars believed their daily lives were sanctified and their growth in holiness empowered by their devotion to the Cross and even more to the reality symbolized by the Cross, that the Son of God loved them and gave up his life for them.

One fresco, The Retrieval and Trial of the Three Crosses (c. 1385-87), portrays the story that Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, while excavating the site of the Holy Sepulcher, discovered three crosses and a titulus bearing Jesus’s name (right side). Unsure which was the cross of Jesus, she had the crosses applied to a sick woman (or a dead man) and the third cross instantly restored the individual (left side). This demonstrates the power of the Cross to heal, to give life, and to sanctify the daily lives of all men and women, including the Franciscans, which may be why three Franciscans are anachronistically pictured working in the background. 

Jesus, like St. Paul and other rabbis of His day, had learned and practiced a trade. He could support Himself by the work of His hands and the sweat of His brow. But when John Everett Millais in his Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50) portrayed what carpentry actually looked like—in Victorian England and first-century Israel—he met with controversy and criticism. The London Times wrote that Millais’ “attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with loathsome minuteness, is disgusting.” Even Charles Dickens, a realist concerned with the working conditions of the poor, lambasted the painting as too realistic.

The boy Jesus has torn His hand on a nail and blood has fallen onto His foot, foreshadowing future wounds. Joseph and Mary comfort Him, St. Anne removes the offending nail, and young John the Baptist appropriately brings a bowl of water. Workers could identify with this working-class Holy Family. But it was such a scandal for the upper classes that it had to be taken down just days after it was exhibited. When God became human, however, this is how He chose to spend the first 30 years of His life. Happy Labor Day. 

In the main vestibule of the National Gallery in London hangs one of its largest acquisitions, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1869) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Puvis suppressed perspective to produce a simple, flat, pale piece reminiscent of Renaissance or Byzantine frescoes and so suggestive of antiquity that we feel  present to this scene.

The executioner, his body coiled and about to strike, the servant shielding her eyes from the imminent horror, Salome with her platter ready to receive the severed head, and Herod who feared his guests more than his God—they all seem somehow disturbed, trapped by circumstances and isolated in their hidden thoughts. John, oblivious to them and fearless of death, focuses his attention rather on the shining cross, a symbol of what he had lived for and is now peacefully prepared to die for. He had answered God’s call, fulfilled his mission faithfully, and now it was over, and he is ready to go to his God. We might wonder who or what would we be willing to die for, for that is certainly a meaningful something or someone worth living for. Perhaps, like John, we are meant to point others to Christ, to prepare His way into their lives. 

Rembrandt’s drawing of The Healing of the Mother-in-Law of Saint Peter (c. 1658) was problematic for him because he was consistently more faithful than other artists to the Gospel details, and the synoptic evangelists describe this event differently.

Matthew wrote that Jesus touched the woman’s hand (Mt 8:15), which is how Jesus usually heals. He touches the sick and the fullness of life that resides in Him flows into them. And the people all tried to touch Jesus, because healing power flowed forth from Him (Lk 6:19).

Luke wrote that Jesus rebuked the fever and it left her (Lk 4:39), which is how Jesus exorcizes an unclean spirit. He doesn’t touch them; rather, He commands the evil spirits to leave and they obey.

Mark wrote that Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up (Mk 1:31). More than 40 times in the New Testament the word “raised up” (ἤγειρεν) means “to raise from the dead,” which suggests here that sickness is an early encroachment of the power of death and that Jesus’ healings ultimately indicate His power even over death itself.

Rembrandt avoids any theologies of sickness or healing. He simply pictures Jesus helping a woman up with both hands, a person of kindness and humanity helping someone else in need. 

The Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (c. 1100-1131), painted by an unknown artist probably in Constantinople, is the type of icon that emphasizes the natural tender attachment between mother and child. They embrace cheek to cheek, and Jesus’ left hand reaches around to embrace His mother’s neck.

Her head is bowed toward Him, but her almond-shaped melancholy eyes are fixed on us. Her left hand calls our attention to Jesus, who gazes up with wonder at his mother’s sadness. She is deeply concerned for her Son, knowing there is suffering in His future. But she is also our mother and is concerned for us, knowing that we will be the cause of His suffering. Her gaze speaks of disappointment, sorrow, love and forgiveness. Her love for her Son is the ideal of a Christian’s relationship to Christ, and she invites us to share it.

Icons are not meant to portray what a person looked like in life; they are windows into heaven through which we see the person’s present spiritual reality. Assumed into heaven, Mary still regards us as her beloved children, still is concerned for us, and still invites us to share her love for her Son and His love for her. 

Tiepolo’s drawing of Christ Leading Peter, James, and John to the High Mountain for the Transfiguration (c. 1785-1795) is a rare instance of this scene in Western art. Depictions of the ascending of Mount Tabor entered Eastern iconography about 840 years after the first known Transfiguration icon.

Jesus selected those three disciples to be with Him earlier in the house of Jairus and later in Gethsemane, wanting them to witness His power and glory to prepare them for His agony. On Tabor they would overhear His conversation with Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) and so learn what the Hebrew Scriptures said about His forthcoming crucifixion. In Eastern icons rays of light descend from Christ to each disciple, opening their eyes to see His glory, and indicating that they too, and we as well, will one day share it.These three were special friends of Jesus even among the Twelve.

Manresa retreatants are also special friends of Jesus. For, of the 2.4 billion Christians in the world, how few have received the grace of a retreat, called, like these three, to come aside with Jesus, to climb the spiritual mountain of prayer and to gain a deeper knowledge of Christ and His relationship with them.

Bernardo Strozzi’s painting, Feeding the Multitudes (c. 1631-1644), unlike most paintings of this story, does not show the multitudes. It’s also called The Miracle of the Five Loaves and Two Fishes, although it doesn’t show the miracle either.

The disciples had asked Jesus to send the people away so that they could get something to eat. Jesus points toward the multitude—5000 men, plus women and children—and tells the disciples to feed the crowds themselves. Andrew gestures toward a small boy holding a basket with five loaves and two fish. He’s saying that this is all they have to work with. His expression says the task is impossible. Two disciples look at Jesus from behind wondering perhaps if he were serious. A third disciple stares at and so draws our attention to the pitifully few items in the basket. Even the little boy seems apologetic that he has so little to offer.

Strozzi has portrayed the problem: Christ is giving His disciples a task beyond their ability or resources. But as the disciples begin to distribute the food, giving pretty much everything each of them has to the person in front of them, they find over and over again they still have enough for the next hungry person. We too seem sometimes called upon to do the impossible, but find that with God’s help nothing is. 

In Rembrandt’s magnificent Supper at Emmaus (1648) Christ’s subtle halo is reflected and expanded by the huge arched recess behind Him. Its grandeur proclaims both His divinity and the solemnity of the moment. It so evokes the apse of a basilica that the table in front of it becomes an altar and the scene eucharistic. The table’s open side toward us bids us join the disciples at the very moment their eyes were being opened to recognize the risen Lord.

The mingled themes of blindness and sight fascinated Rembrandt and they appear here and in many of his other works. Like these two disciples, we need to have our eyes opened to see the divinity of the risen Christ and His presence in the Scriptures and the breaking of bread, in the stranger on the road and the guest at our table, in the person at our door in need of shelter and food, in all the people in our lives, and in all the moments of our lives, both joyful and trying.

A restorer took eleven months to remove seven layers of varnish so that we might see Rembrandt’s work more clearly. What must we do to see the Lord in our lives more clearly? 

St. Thomas had seen the ravaged body of Christ, had seen Him buried, and could still see the other apostles hiding in the upper room. So, although he had probably said more than he meant to, he did have reason to doubt. Christ understood and came to disperse that doubt. In Caravaggio’s somewhat gory Incredulity of Thomas (c. 1601–1602) Jesus pulls the doubter’s hand into the gaping wound in His side.

This event was recorded for our sake, to tell us that we are blessed, even more blessed than St. Thomas. For he saw and so believed, but we believe without seeing. Our faith is being tested these days. Christ shows us and draws us into the woundedness not of His risen body, but of His members on earth. We are meant to see Christ in those who suffer and to expect that one day their wounds and ours will become as glorious as Christ’s are. St. Peter adds that though we have not seen Christ, we love him (1 Peter 1:8). So, without seeing, how strong is our faith and our love, and how aware are we that Christ is still with us in every place and time and situation? 

Vincent van Gogh based his The Sower (1888) on his favorite painting, Millet’s work by the same name. But Millet’s image focused completely on the sower. In van Gogh’s broader canvas the sower is a smaller and humbler part of a much greater picture.

Van Gogh’s sower strides across the field broadcasting seed generously, knowing there will be waste and loss. The birds and path are represented, the thorns and rocks not very evident. The artist isn’t stressing the different ways the Word is received—an allegorical interpretation probably later than Jesus.

His focus is at the top of the painting, where above the harvest field of mature grain, the sun, a symbol of God, broadcasts life-giving rays generously in all directions. And as beams of light radiate outward, they draw our eyes back inward to the sun itself.

As a former seminarian and missionary and as the son and grandson of pastors, van Gogh knows well that the sower’s task is to sow the seed, but it is only God who gives the increase (1 Cor 3:6 and Mk 4:26-28). Our labor is important, but in the spiritual life God and grace are primary—an important lesson to learn in our individualistic and results-oriented culture. 

Grant Wood undoubtedly painted this satirical Daughters of the American Revolution (1932) as payback for their antagonism to him three years earlier. Its Cedar Rapids chapter, out of sheer anti-German prejudice, had scuttled the public dedication of his monumental stained-glass window in the Veterans Memorial Building, because he had used German workmen and German glass in its production. This was a very low period in the history of the DAR. They had refused to allow Paul Robeson in 1930 and Marion Anderson, famously, in 1939 to use their Constitution Hall because of their “white-performers-only” policy. When Anderson sang instead at the Lincoln Memorial 75,000 people crowded the National Mall to hear her.

Wood’s painting contrasts two kinds of patriotism. Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (a German!) recalls Washington and his soldiers and all those since who dedicated themselves and their lives to establishing, defending, and promoting the values and ideals for which America is rightly praised. In contrast, the three elderly women in their faded dresses and others like them give lip service to our nation while undermining those same values and ideals. America is still divided today into such disparate groups engaged in an existential fight for the soul of the nation. 

Our celebration last week of the birth of John the Baptist reminded me of Dieric Bouts the Elder’s unusual painting, Ecce Agnus Dei (1463). In John’s Gospel the Baptist was standing at the Jordan River with two disciples, and when he saw Christ passing by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:35-36). The two disciples heard this and began to follow Jesus.

In this rendition, however, Bouts replaced the two disciples with the donor of the picture, who undoubtedly had specified the change. The painting then became so personalized that it could hang nowhere except in the donor’s house, which is what he intended.

The man can afford to commission paintings. He’s well-off and dresses accordingly. He’s portrayed here as a devout Christian who wants to be reminded daily to follow Christ by the constant presence of this painting and by John the Baptist, who is probably his patron saint. He may well be a follower of Devotio Moderna, the prevailing religious movement at the time that focused on the imitation or following of Christ.

We might imagine ourselves in this man’s place and hope to be constantly reminded by that image to go to Christ and to follow him daily. 

Christ and Abbot Mena (8th century), the oldest known Coptic icon, depicts Christ with His arm around the shoulders of Abbot Mena in a gesture of affection and protection. He seems to be introducing Mena to the host of heavenly saints that he is to join. The icon has also been called Jesus and His Friend, which subtly invites us to place ourselves in Mena’s stead and enjoy the Lord’s friendship. Christ looks at us with overly large eyes that accentuate the warm, friendly, personal quality of His image and invitation.

This composition might be founded on pre-Christian images of Osiris (the god who died and rose again) protecting Pharaoh as he leads him through the darkness of the afterlife to enter into union with the god and so enjoy eternal life.

Friday’s solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus celebrated that warm love of Christ for us at the very heart and center of His being.  May we grow more deeply convinced of that enormous unconditional love and of the close friendship Christ desires to have with us. And may we entrust ourselves to His loving protection and care as our constant friend and companion in all the vicissitudes of our lives.

Fritz von Uhde typically recast Gospel scenes like The Last Supper (1886) into more modern settings and dress, so that the more familiar images might deepen our understanding of Christ and draw us more easily into the scene. Not everyone in his day appreciated this technique, but this image does evoke feelings more difficult to experience in traditional representations of Christ’s last meal.

We would feel comfortable with these disciples, real people rather than stereotypes, mostly working-class men, whose expressions and gestures express a sincere love and dedication to their Master. Their eyes and attention and hearts are fixed totally on Him. And Jesus, His hands on the cup, is in the act of giving Himself entirely, giving His body and blood, to them and for them. That mutual self-giving creates the unity desired in this shared meal. Only Judas distances himself from the group. That unity is the meaning of the meals Christ shared with others during His public life, all His table fellowship brought to its fullest implications in this final Eucharistic meal: we who feed on the body of Christ become the body of Christ, one with Him and with one another. And yes, that is the face of Anton Bruckner at the far left. 

Chapter 18 of Genesis tells of the Lord visiting Abraham under the appearance of three men. The icon portraying this event is called The Hospitality of Abraham. The three men spoke with one voice and acted in such perfect unity that Christians saw them as a foreshadowing of the Trinity. Around 1411, when Russia was just a collection of disparate principalities rife with civil strife, the abbot of the Holy Trinity Monastery near Moscow asked the monk Andrei Rublev to paint an icon that would bring peace and harmony to the monastic community, perhaps even to the country. Rublev chose the Hospitality icon and, by leaving out Abraham, Sarah and the servant, clearing the table of all but one sacrificial dish, and carefully depicting the three visitors, he shifted the icon’s emphasis from a particular Biblical event to a meditation on the dialogue of love within the Trinity. He chose well. St. Sergius, who founded the monastery in 1337, taught those who came to it that “contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord.” The icon, now known as the Old Testament Trinity, has become the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony and mutual love.

The basic composition of the image is a vertical circle enclosing the three figures—appropriate for the Godhead since a circle is one line without beginning or end. The persons are equal, with the same face and figure, hair and haloes, wings and walking staffs, with all three wearing the same blue for heaven and divinity. They are distinguished by the background—the Father’s house, the tree of the cross, the earth where the Spirit works—and by the color of their garments: a shimmering dawn-hue for the Father, the first origin, shades of earth and flesh and blood with kingly gold for the incarnate Son, and the green tones of new life offered to us by the Holy Spirit. They glance and bow and gesture to one another in an eternal conversation and interplay of mutual love. Were God just a single Person, then before creation God would be alone, and the giving and receiving of love would be impossible. Because God is Three, then even before creation there can be love. And in their desire to share that infinite, eternal and perfect love—parents will understand—they created us so we could love and be loved and be one with them forever. Therefore, the composition also includes a horizontal circle reaching out to us (roughly their laps and the table top). The icon’s inverse perspective focusing on the viewer, the open space at the table, the aperture in its front and the chalice nearest to us combine to draw us into the divine union that is our final destiny.

It’s a fundamental principle of Scholastic philosophy that everything that acts produces an effect similar to itself (omne agens agit sibi simile). This means that we can draw inferences from creation to the nature of the Creator and from the Creator to the nature of creation. Because God is a community of love, then God’s creation and every being in it are essentially communal and bound together by some analogous form of love. Because they are created by the Trinity there is a unity and communal nature to the whole universe and every creature in it, the earth and its living beings, the human family, the nation, the Church, all our groups and associations. Meditating on this icon may we grow in love of the Trinity, in appreciation of its mystery and in our resolve to make all our communities better manifestations of it.

The Descent of the Holy Spirit (16th-century),  a Russian icon from Novgorod, pictures twelve apostles seated in a semicircle to symbolize the unity of the church, the body of Christ. To create this unity the Holy Spirit descends on them in twelve rays that emanate from a mandorla, the mysterious presence of God, at the top of the icon.

They hold scrolls to signify that the Spirit is sending them to preach the Gospel. Below in the darkness, King Cosmos, who represents the people of the world, is receiving the scrolls of their teaching.

Interestingly, St. Paul sits across from St. Peter, even though he hadn’t yet been converted. So, the icon proclaims, not just an historical event, but the Spirit’s continuous descent on the whole church, Paul and ourselves included. We too are each day being united by the Spirit to Christ and to each other in His one body. And we are also being called to preach the Gospel—especially by our lives, as St. Francis said, “Always preach the Gospel, and use words only when necessary.”

It was difficult to resist the temptation to post this miniature sometimes known as The Ascension of Jesus Dressed as a Jesuit (1602-1605) by an unknown Mughal artist, who understandably considered Jesus and His disciples as Westerners and portrayed them as such.

We see the usual components of an Ascension painting: Jesus, the disciples and angels, but the cloud itself is very significant. Scripture says “a cloud took Him from their sight.” The upward movement—the apparent going away—is interrupted by the cloud, because the Ascension is not about Jesus’ going away, but about His entering into and sharing God’s omnipresence to all of creation. In some twenty Scriptural verses a cloud is a characteristic element of God’s appearance or presence, as when God led the Israelites through the desert as a pillar of cloud.

By His death, resurrection and ascension Jesus transcends the limitations of space and time and matter so that He’s intimately though invisibly present in every place at every moment, and so with each of us today and at every moment of our lives. St. Matthew sums up the Ascension simply with the words, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20) 

On the Way to Emmaus (1992) by Janet Brooks-Gerloff pictures a couple walking away from us, their faces hidden, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple who might be his wife Mary, or who might represent you or me. While it is called On the Way to Emmaus, they are actually walking in a pathless desert toward a horizon and an unknown future of intermingled sunshine and rain. Their bowed heads, stooped shoulders and dark clothing speak of sadness, grief and the loss of hope. Someone they loved dearly and believed in deeply was gone. The powers of evil had won. Perhaps there is also some doubt. Was what Jesus said about God’s love and mercy really true?

But this was Easter Sunday afternoon. And Jesus, mysteriously, barely discernible, walks along with them. He tells them of how the Christ, and sometimes His followers, must suffer in order to enter into His glory. And although they will realize this only in hindsight, their hearts are already burning. Hopefully, we can be able to acknowledge, accept and live with our earthly sorrows and also our Christian hope without denying either, and also share both of these with others for our mutual support and comfort.  

After his conversion and his visit to the Abbey of Montserrat, St. Ignatius stayed for about 11 months in Manresa, Spain, where he frequented a certain cave to pray, do penance and begin writing his Spiritual Exercises. The cave is now a chapel. On the door of the tabernacle is an enamel artwork by Maria Noguera Puig that depicts Saint Ignatius contemplating the Nativity (1995) as described in his Exercises:  “First Point. This will consist in seeing the persons, namely, our Lady, St. Joseph, the maid, and the Child Jesus after His birth. I will make myself a poor little unworthy slave, and as though present, look upon them, contemplate them, and serve them in their needs with all possible homage and reverence.” (SE 114) The enamel also features an ox, an ass, the star of Bethlehem and beside Ignatius an open copy of his Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius had learned the art of contemplation from Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ, one of the two books he read and prayed with during his ten-month convalescence in Loyola castle. Ludolph told his readers to imagine themselves as though they were actually present at each event of Jesus’ life, to put themselves into the story, to play an active part in it and to witness and experience it as if at first hand with their own eyes and ears and all their senses. Ignatius undoubtedly learned even more about this form of prayer from Jean Chanon, a monk at Montserrat, and from a book Chanon had given him, Cisneros’ Exercises for the Spiritual Life. But retreats based on Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises so spread his reformulation of this method that, while the Exercises taught many other forms of prayer, this one became especially known as Ignatian Contemplation.

It’s difficult not to see its influence on Diego Velázquez’s Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul (c. 1628-29). The Jesuits’ use of imaginative prayer to foster devotion had popularized Ignatian contemplation. That and their patronage of the arts strongly influenced the Catholic Baroque, which tried to produce art so captivating that it would evoke an emotional response from its viewers. Contemporaries of Velázquez like Bernini, Rubens and Van Dyck freely acknowledged their indebtedness to the Jesuits. More specifically, in 1554 the Jesuits had founded a college in Velázquez’s home town, Seville, where they continued to have a strong presence. They also worked closely with and commissioned art from Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’s teacher and father-in-law. So, the painting’s unusual title word “contemplated” may easily signal its Ignatian influence. On the left side of the painting, the scourged Christ is still tied to the column amid flecks of blood and the sticks and whips used to beat Him. His humanity is emphasized by the lack of any halo except a slight nimbus. He’s exhausted and suffering, but His countenance is noble and attractive. He gives us a look that is sorrowful and pained, but also serene. There’s no condemnation or reproach in His eyes, rather a desire for our love. We cannot see Him without being moved. St. Ignatius would have approved if the suffering of Jesus were seen like this in the contemplation of his retreatants. On the right side of the painting, Velázquez has made imaginative contemplation both explicit and encouraged by including a small child who, the title tells us, symbolizes the Christian soul and so each of us. A guardian angel gently urges the child and us to contemplate the suffering of Christ. And from Christ’s head a thin responding beam of light, His love and His grace, travels toward the child and to us. 

“Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Mt 1:18-19) But Joseph did marry Mary once an angel assured him in a dream that she was innocent. Paintings of this event are titled The Dream of St. Joseph, but our painting by the Upper Rhenish Master (c. 1430) is the exception. Since Joseph is awake, it’s called The Doubt of St. Joseph. But the story is ambiguous enough that we too should have doubts—about its meaning.

The painting depicts a middle-class home. On the left a pregnant Mary winds yarn. Around her, besides Joseph’s workbench and tools, are symbols of her virginity:  sealed water fountain and a shrub protected by a crenelated pot. And there are books representing the prophets, especially Isaiah who foresaw the virgin birth of Christ. On the other side Joseph has grabbed his walking stick in dismay and set his feet to storm out of the house. But an angel stops him, pointing to Mary and proclaiming her innocence. So, our painter implies that Joseph believed Mary guilty of adultery. A hymn to Mary written in 626 AD describes his feelings: “Looking on thee, O Unwedded One, and dreading a hidden wedlock, O Sinless One, the chaste Joseph was riven in mind with a storm of doubt.” And a Middle-English mystery play, Joseph’s Doubt, written between 1450 and 1500, portrays Joseph angrily accusing Mary of adultery until God sets him right.

Other people understand the text differently. Joseph, they say, found out that Mary “was with child through the Holy Spirit.” He was a “righteous” man, one who keeps the Law, so had he thought Mary guilty of adultery, he would in obedience to the Law have to accuse her publicly. Rather, knowing her virtue and that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, Joseph believed her, but he thought himself unworthy of being involved in so great a mystery. And he was fearful of that involvement too, not angry at a betrayal. The angel told him not to be afraid and assured him that his involvement wasn’t an accident. He had been specifically chosen to give Jesus His name and raise Him as his own.

There’s also a third opinion. In the second-century apocryphal Gospel of James, Joseph laments that he had failed to protect Mary’s virginity. When she insists she’s innocent and says she doesn’t know how she became pregnant, “Joseph was greatly afraid, and retired from her, and considered what he should do in regard to her. And Joseph said: If I conceal her sin, I find myself fighting against the law of the Lord; and if I expose her to the sons of Israel, I am afraid lest that which is in her be from an angel.” He couldn’t believe her unfaithful, nor understand how she could become pregnant otherwise. In his doubt he suspended his judgment, but still thought of backing out of the marriage. The Eastern Churches rarely depict even Joseph’s dream, but their Icon of the Nativity typically includes Satan in a bottom corner disguised as a shepherd who tempts Joseph to doubt Mary’s virginity. Joseph is troubled but resists the temptation. So, Joseph may have had doubts: about Mary’s fidelity, or his own worthiness or the whole a situation. And we may have doubts about the meaning of the text and about much else as well. Undoubtedly, someday all will be made clear.

 

Wenzel Peter’s ten-foot-wide Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (c. 1800-1829) illustrates with precision more than 200 different animal species. Our selected detail shows our first parents amid a few domesticated animals. God greatly gifted them in this peaceable kingdom. Lion and lamb live in harmony. Adam and Eve enjoy an ideal relationship with God, each other, the animals and the earth. It is a world where God might easily be found in all things, although the apple in Eve’s hand suggests the situation will not last long. Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day, and Peter’s painting also appears to say that God’s work is finished. In fact, even unseen it was and is still going on. As Jesus said, “My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17) Were God to stop working, stop creating, the universe would cease to exist, and we with it. God is at every moment creating all things and loving us into being.

The painting reminds me how at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius says that men and women are created to praise, reverence and serve God, and that all other things—the animals and everything else, even the apple—are created to help us fulfill our purpose in life, and so we should use them insofar as they help us, and avoid them insofar as they hinder us. At the end of the Exercises in his “Contemplation to Attain Love,” Ignatius adds that these other things also reveal God’s love for us. That contemplation isn’t meant as the last prayer of the retreat, but as a contemplative attitude for the rest of our lives. Animals, plants, minerals and even human artifacts are all God’s gifts to us, not to mention everything Christ has done for our salvation following Adam’s fall. All gifts symbolize the givers’ love and desire to give themselves to the other. Ignatius writes, “Love consists in a mutual sharing of goods, for example, the lover gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses, or something of that which he has or is able to give.” As we become aware of the blessings we have each personally received from God, we ought to grow in gratitude, in love and in giving of ourselves to God in return.

God is still creating these gifts and so must be present in them, as their creator and our lover. Since Ignatius says love is shown more by deeds than words, he doesn’t imagine God as being merely present, but as working in all creation and every creature—each element, plant, animal and faculty of our being— making them to be and to be what they are for our sake. “The Father is always at His work to this very day.” God creates by sharing something of God’s own Self, so that as art somehow reveals the artist, creation reveals the Creator. We not only find God in all things, we find God revealed in them. The rose hints at God’s beauty, the stars at God’s majesty, the lives of loving, compassionate people at God’s love and mercy. Finite beauty reveals to us its source in infinite beauty, so that we come to love God not just for God’s gifts and labor, but for God’s own Self. And because after His ascension the life of the risen Christ has merged into the eternal life of the Trinity, we may also expect to find and encounter the risen Christ in all things as well. As Jesus said, “I too am working.”

Tintoretto painted his Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet (1548-1549) for the church of San Marcuola in Venice as a companion piece to his Last Supper (1547). They hung facing each other across the church’s main altar, and so he united two moments of that final meal: the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of feet. He joined them even more closely in this painting using the pictorial device of continuous narrative— portraying two moments of a story within a single image, inserting, as it were, the earlier painting into the later one. Jesus, helped by John, kneels and is about to wash Peter´s feet as an example of humble service to others, and in another room right behind Him He is seen at table instituting the Eucharist. Tintoretto has united what the Gospels separated, and it’s right that these moments be seen in their unity. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote, “The Synoptics recount the institution of the Eucharist, while the Gospel of John relates, as a way of bringing out its profound meaning, the account of the washing of the feet, in which Jesus appears as the teacher of communion and of service” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 20).

John’s Gospel was the last to be written, so he didn’t have to remind Christians of what Paul and the earlier Gospels had described and what Christians commemorated every week. He chose rather to remind his readers that repetition of ritual shouldn’t lead to forgetting its meaning, that focusing on our union with Christ doesn’t detract from our communion with others and that humble service shows love far better than lofty words. Out of love for us Christ humbled Himself even to death on a cross. Union with our Eucharistic Lord ought to transform us into people of self-sacrificing love and self-giving service for one another. Tintoretto did well to place Christ at the table in such close proximity to Christ on His knees; the ritual liturgy should flow naturally into real-life deeds.

The command Christ gave us—to love others as He has loved us, and so to love even to the point of laying down one’s life for a friend—is implicit in these two moments. The Eucharist celebrates Christ’s death and resurrection. The early church hymn in chapter two of Philippians beautifully describes His self-emptying, His humility even to death on the cross and His subsequent glorification. The story of the washing of feet wonderfully corresponds to the movement within the hymn. Jesus rises from His rightful place at the head of the table, sets aside the outer robe symbolic of His dignity, girds Himself with a towel, the garb of a slave, and humbles Himself to the lowest service a slave might perform. And then He once again resumes His robe and His place at the head of the table and declares that His disciples call Him Lord and Master, and they are right to do so because that is what He is. Both Philippians and the Gospel tell us to imitate Him: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Ph 2:5) and, “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). Paul says it is unworthy for a Christian to partake of the Lord’s Supper while being indifferent to the poor, to attend Mass without attending to the needy. If we pray, we should serve. If we come on retreat to grow in our relationship with the Lord, we must show that growth in our service to others as well.

Fritz von Uhde’s The Road to Bethlehem (1980) presents a realistic portrayal of Mary and Joseph and the difficulties they had to endure to bring Christ into the world. It touches our hearts more deeply than more traditional and often sentimental renditions of the Christmas story. We see here a desolate scene: cold, bare, dank, misty. Joseph with his carpenter’s saw on his back and Mary hauling a cooking vessel trudge along a rough muddy road through a wintry landscape to Bethlehem. It is a scene of poverty: there is no donkey, no inn, their clothing is poor, their possessions are few. This is the humble situation into which God chose that the Savior of the world would be born. They were on that road because of forces beyond their control. Their homeland had been conquered and occupied by the Romans, and Caesar wanted to know how many people he had subjugated—for purposes, no doubt, of conscription and taxation. So they were forced to travel nearly 100 miles to Bethlehem while Mary was nine months pregnant. Paintings almost never show her walking, but the Gospel stories don’t mention a donkey, and walking was preferable to a week-long jolting ride that could have induced her contractions. For all the joy of knowing she was to give birth to a son, to the Messiah, it was not an easy road, and at the end of it they would find no room in the inn. The desolate landscape reflects and intensifies for us the emotional situation of the holy couple.

Mary’s exhaustion is evident in the way she leans against Joseph. His care and concern and love are obvious in the way his head bends to her and his arm tries to support her. He is taller and larger than she, stronger and protective; she is smaller, frailer and yet still strong and enduring enough to have made the journey. We sense Joseph’s feeling of powerlessness as well as his solicitude. How he must have longed to carry her or in some way or another provide a more comfortable trip for her, but all he could do was to help to hold her up. Still, there is a dignity about them as they return to their ancestral home, for they are of the royal house of David, and Bethlehem is the foretold and fitting place for the birth of the Messiah, the Son of David. We see some houses ahead, perhaps a place of welcome and rest. Joseph may be asking if Mary wants to stop or to continue on, and she perhaps replies that she’s alright and that they need to keep going. The converging lines of perspective draw our eyes down the road to a distant, dim and unknown future. There’s no telling how much farther or longer the journey may be.

Since von Uhde portrays his Biblical characters in contemporary dress and since the painting has the alternate title of The Difficult Journey, the travelers might be a contemporary couple and the painting a social commentary on the times. They might even be taken as people of our own day, people who are now on difficult journeys, people we know or know about, our friends perhaps or even ourselves. For these are difficult times we live in and we are being tried by both a pandemic and the resulting economic and political chaos. And for us too the end of this road is not yet clearly in sight. Christianity itself was once called simply “The Way.” It may be a difficult path to follow at times, but it is always the way we should walk no matter what the conditions of the world are around us. We need to act today as Mary and Joseph would have in their time: with trust in God and God’s plans, with fidelity to His will and reliance on His help, with patience and perseverance amid difficulties, with courage and hope amid dangers, with love and concern for one another, with gratitude for what we have received and generosity in what we can give, with the willingness to share our strength and support with others, with the humility and grace to accept the help that they offer.

Paintings of the Annunciation typically portray Mary reading, and her text is understood to be Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The text gave rise to the icon and image, Our Lady of the Sign (15th century)—Mary with her hands raised in prayer, and on her breast the infant Jesus within a round aureole. It depicts the moment when Mary says, “Be it done unto me according to Your word” and simultaneously Christ is conceived in her womb. The equivalent image by an unknown frescoist in the Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain is different; not only is Jesus not confined within a symbolic womb, but rays of light radiate outward from Him in all directions. These rays form a kind of halo, a sign of holiness, an attribute primarily of God and then of those who are one with Him.

But at the moment of the Incarnation these rays carry a deeper meaning. New life has begun not just for Jesus, but for all of us as well. When God becomes human, He supplants Adam as the head of our race. Now, the life that flows from the head to the rest of the body is not life tainted by original sin, but a share in Christ’s divine life. “Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). The power of Christ’s incarnation reaches out from Him to every part of creation, bringing all things under His headship and bringing new life, divine life, to us. God has become human so that humans may become divine.

John and Sarah Crossan’s recent book, Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Version, illustrates two different visualizations of the Easter event. The typical image of the Resurrection in Western Christianity is of Christ emerging alone from a tomb or sarcophagus; the only other humans present are the sleeping guards. This image is not used by Eastern Christianity because the Gospels do not mention or describe this physical aspect of the Resurrection. The Eastern icon of the Anastasis (Resurrection), like this anonymous fresco (ca. 1316-21) fresco in the former Church of the Holy Savior of Chora, Istanbul, portrays Christ in the abode of the dead where the just people who died before Christ wait for His grace to open to them the gates of Heaven. There He tramples personified Death underfoot with all his locks and chains, shackles and prison doors. He takes hold of Adam and Eve, symbolic of the whole of humanity, and pulls them out of their graves, sharing His resurrection with them and so with us. Western Christianity depicts an individual resurrection, Eastern Christianity a universal resurrection. There is but one resurrection, that of Christ, in which we are given a share. “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above” (Colossians 3:1). These two mysteries, the Annunciation and Easter, which we celebrate this year on March 25 and April 12, obtain new life for us—divine life by Christ’s incarnation, eternal life by His resurrection.

James Tissot’s watercolor of The Palsied Man Let Down through the Roof (c. 1886-1896) portrays a story in the synoptic Gospels that uniquely combines healing with forgiveness. Jesus is teaching in a house at Capernaum packed with people eager to hear His teaching and experience His healing power. But many Pharisees and teachers of the law were also there, come from all over to judge this Jesus for themselves. Four men carry a paralyzed friend to the place but, unable to enter because of the crowd, they climb to the roof, open it up and lower the man down before the Lord. Tissot balances the man’s downward movement from his four friends’ hands with the uplifted welcoming arms of Jesus on the left and the helping hands of three men on the right. The paralytic’s own flailing, outstretched arms and dangling lifeless legs accentuate his precarious situation and his utter helplessness. A circle of people— the Pharisees who will criticize Jesus and the many who will glorify God—surrounds the paralytic and the three in the center. Two Pharisees at the bottom are opposite the friends at the top. As first the debris from the roof and then the man comes down, those below look up with apprehension, astonishment and wonder.

The painting is just the beginning of the story. But we can already see helplessness, hope, welcome and anticipation. They all expect a healing. We who have heard the story know that Jesus intends much more—a spiritual as well as a physical healing. Seeing their faith and before being asked, Jesus grants the man something no one anticipated. “Son,” He proclaimed, “your sins are forgiven.” The paralytic must have been startled by Jesus’ words and at first somewhat disappointed and, so to speak, let down. He had come to be healed, he had not expected forgiveness. Did Jesus see that the man needed to experience forgiveness before a physical cure was possible? I’m inclined to think so. The year before my ordination I came across a man unable to walk for five years who blamed his paralysis on his abandoning his Catholic faith. I sent the hospital chaplain to hear his confession, and the next day the man ran the length of the ward to embrace me.

Jesus’ care for the paralytic led him to declare something He had not previously proclaimed: His power, authority and desire to forgive sins, to heal the soul as well as the body. Perhaps He even chose this moment to do so precisely because of the presence of so many teachers of the law who would see the significance of His words and understand the validity of His proof. He needed no divine insight to know exactly what they would think. Pharisees held that sin was an offense against God and so God alone could forgive it. Jesus would in fact be claiming to act in God’s stead and they would consider that blasphemous. “Which is easier to say,” He challenged them, “‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Arise and walk’?” And then He told the man to arise and walk. Now the Pharisees believed the man was paralyzed because of his sin and so couldn’t walk unless the sin was first forgiven. And they also held that God doesn’t help sinners or liars and so, if Jesus were a fraud, this man wouldn’t walk. But he did walk, and so their own beliefs proved that the abundance of God’s life and love and mercy flowed in and through Jesus then and now for the healing of our bodies and the forgiveness of our sins.

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