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Archive for March 25th, 2013

Crucifixion w_creditGood Friday: Jesus Embraces us from the Cross

We don’t often take the time to consider the artistic differences that distinguish one crucifix from another.  In one figure Jesus may gaze out with stately bearing;  in another he may suffer gruesome torment;  and in still another he has accepted death with serenity.  In each case the artist has picked up on an aspect of the suffering Christ and run to the logical conclusion.  In each case the artist has the potential to speak eloquently, or miss the  potential of the scene entirely.

I was particularly struck by the artist’s ability to teach when I first saw the illumination of the Crucifixion in The Saint John’s Bible.  Artist Donald Jackson had portrayed the figure of Christ in a way I’d not conceived before.  The figure of Jesus and the cross itself were pitched forward, almost as a kite ready to go aloft.  And while the corpus is abstract, the gold leaf conveys a sense of energy — an energy that almost explodes on the page.

This is not a defeated Jesus.  This is a Jesus who is undergoing radical transformation.  Death has not crushed him.  Rather, death has unleashed something truly awesome and powerful.  A metamorphosis is taking place.  Death has had no power to destroy.  Rather, Jesus has broken any chains of death, and instead a scene of intense drama has played out on the page.

Crucifix, 15th century, Abbey church

Crucifix, 15th century, Abbey church

To people scared to death of death, the prospect of transformation provides a glimmer of hope.  But to those who have undergone intense pain and suffering in their final journey of life, the figure of Christ at peace offers a measure of consolation.  The 15th-century Flemish crucifix that hangs in the Abbey church at Saint John’s is just such a figure.  Whatever he may have suffered, the face of this Jesus is tranquil and peaceful.  He is now beyond pain, and the inner beauty has returned after the agony of the cross.

There are so many varied crosses because we each carry quite individual crosses — as does each individual artist who tries to depict this awesome experience.  We each look to Jesus for reasons that are unique to ourselves.  Some look to him for backbone, some for guidance, some for consolation, some for hope that suffering will subside.  Oddly enough, all of these hopes that we direct to Jesus on the cross are ones he seeks to address and embrace.

Crucifix, Castile-Leon, 12th.  Cloisters Museum, New York

Crucifix, Castile-Leon, 12th. Cloisters Museum, New York

In the next few days we will celebrate the Triduum, the most solemn days of the Christian calendar.  On Good Friday we will experience the liturgy of the passion, which has the potential to summon to our imagination all of the varied crosses we have seen, and all of the crosses that we carry.  Each of these images contributes somehow to our understanding, because Jesus on the cross embraces the meaning of it all.  He does indeed suffer unbelievably.  He does forgive.  He is compassionate.  He is serene.  And ultimately he is triumphant — because he conquers the cross and reaches out to each of us.

Throughout Christian history there have been several strands of theology that attempted but ultimately fell short in describing the full reality of our belief in Jesus Christ.  For better or for worse we have called those heresies, and we rejected them not for reasons of intolerance but simply because they took us in the wrong direction.  Among those who narrowed our understanding of Jesus were the docetists, who denied the humanity of Jesus.  According to them the crucifixion was an illusion, because Jesus had no body which could be tortured.  It was all a ruse to trick the devil and to rescue souls from the prison of an intrinsically evil body.

Saint Alban's Abbey

Saint Alban’s Abbey

But orthodox Christians pray in the conviction that Jesus was indeed both human and divine.  Son of God, he embraced our humanity and suffered and died just as we all must.  In that he is one with us.  Just as surely our own sufferings are no fantasy, so is Jesus’ suffering no charade.  He authentically shares in all our sorrows.

One of my favorite prayers from the Mass is said rather quietly by the priest at the offertory.  As the drops of water mix with the wine in the chalice, the words softly come:  “through the mingling of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”  That ultimately is the mystery of the cross.  And it is also the consolation of the cross for all of us who are confused or suffer or are tortured by life.  Frail and mortal as we all are, Jesus comes to remind us that we have within us the life of God.  From the cross Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, just as he has shared in our humanity.

Dawn at Saint John's Abbey

Dawn at Saint John’s Abbey

NOTES

+On March 21st I attended a reception and luncheon for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University.  It was held at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Phoenix, AZ.  Needless to say, the weather was adequate.

+On March 23rd I gave a day of reflection to members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  I had given the group its first-ever retreat day last year, and it was wonderful to see many familiar faces and to meet several new members.

+On March 21st our confrere Brother Shuuta Maximilian Oka renewed his vows in the presence of Abbot John Klassen.  This ceremony took place at our priory, Holy Trinity Monastery, in Fujimi, Japan.

+In anticipation of Good Friday, our confrere and junior monk, Brother Nick Kleespie, offered a reflection on the illumination of the Suffering Servant from The Saint John’s Bible.   You may see the illumination and hear his narrative at this link.

Brother Oka renews vows

Brother Oka renews vows

+Two alumni of Saint John’s University celebrated the election of Pope Francis in very distinctive ways.  On March 13th, the day of the election of Pope Francis, alumnus Chris Stroh, ’04, recorded an improvisation on the Gregorian chant “Tu es Petrus” (You are Peter).  In this video he plays the organ at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, where he is principal organist.  It was a lovely way to celebrate the arrival of a new pope.

On the day of the installation of Pope Francis as bishop of Rome and Pope, viewers at Saint John’s were startled to see Sebastian Gomes (BA ’07 and MA ’11) approach the lecturn to do the first reading of the Mass.  He was in Rome as part of Salt+Light TV of Toronto, assisting the Vatican Information Services in working with the multitude of media outlets present in Rome..

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