When did the Church come into being? Egyptian Christians say the first Church was in their land, when Joseph led Mary and Baby Jesus to exile in what is now Cairo; others point to Pentecost, the day when the tongues of fire came down upon the 120 core members of the Church of Christ’s followers, women and men, including the Apostles and Mary his mother. You could suggest also the calling of the twelve, the sending out of the seventy, among many other key moments in the development of the community that took over Jesus’s mission; but one I had not considered was the taking down of the crucified corpse of the Lord, and the hurried burial in the garden tomb.
The Visual Commentary on Scripture recently published a reflection on this event, titled The Birth of the Church. At this critical moment, the Church had to come together to do what needed doing for his Body; the Church that was now his Body, led by two previously marginal men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
Paul Anel addresses this short moment through three works of art, by Rublev, Caravaggio and Michelangelo, and both the reflections and the art can be found by clicking on the link above.
What about the angry psalms – often called the cursing psalms – where the psalmist is ranting and raving and just lets it rip against his enemies? What about them? Should we be embarrassed about them, and try to hide them in a dark corner where no one will notice them?
Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.
More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.
All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.
We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.
JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’
This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.
From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.
‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’
Our final selection from EBB’s verses on The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus. I disagree with the poet’s suggestion that Jesus never smiled, nor had the heart to play: that’s not a real human child, unless one that has learned not to through cruelty. Perhaps the poet is suggesting that Jesus in his earthly, human life had access to divine knowledge of his death by cruelty. That is to deny his humanity altogether. But we can no longer interview Barrett Browning, and we know that Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart, and she would have pondered these things in her heart.
It is enough to bear
This image still and fair,
This holier in sleep
Than a saint at prayer,
This aspect of a child
Who never sinned or smiled;
This Presence in an infant's face;
This sadness most like love,
This love than love more deep,
This weakness like omnipotence
It is so strong to move.
Awful is this watching place,
Awful what I see from hence—
A king, without regalia,
A God, without the thunder,
A child, without the heart for play;
Ay, a Creator, rent asunder
From His first glory and cast away
On His own world, for me alone
To hold in hands created, crying—Son!
That tear fell not on Thee,
Beloved, yet thou stirrest in thy slumber!
Thou, stirring not for glad sounds out of number
Which through the vibratory palm-trees run
From summer-wind and bird,
So quickly hast thou heard
A tear fall silently?
Wak'st thou, O loving One?—
Art Thou a King, then?
Come, His universe,
Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
Their light where fell a curse,
And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—
What is my word? Each empyreal star
Sits in a sphere afar
In shining ambuscade:
The child-brow, crowned by none,
Keeps its unchildlike shade.
Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!
Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear
An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.
No small babe-smiles my watching heart has seen
To float like speech the speechless lips between,
No dovelike cooing in the golden air,
No quick short joys of leaping babyhood.
Alas, our earthly good
In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee;
Yet, sleep, my weary One!
And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,
With the dread sense of things which shall be done,
Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?
That "smites the Shepherd." Then, I think aloud
The words "despised,"—"rejected,"—every word
Recoiling into darkness as I view
The Darling on my knee.
Bright angels,—move not—lest ye stir the cloud
Betwixt my soul and His futurity!
I must not die, with mother's work to do,
And could not live-and see.
More from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's reflections on Mary.
Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary
Earth-sounds and motions, opens on Thy soul
High dreams on fire with God;
High songs that make the pathways where they roll
More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new
Of Thine eternal Nature's old abode.
Suffer this mother's kiss,
Best thing that earthly is,
To glide the music and the glory through,
Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings
Of any seraph wing.Thus noiseless, thus.
Sleep, sleep my dreaming One!
The slumber of His lips meseems to run
Through my lips to mine heart, to all its shiftings
Of sensual life, bringing contrariousness
In a great calm. I feel I could lie down
As Moses did, and die,* —and then live most.
I am 'ware of you, heavenly Presences,
That stand with your peculiar light unlost,
Each forehead with a high thought for a crown,
Unsunned i' the sunshine! I am 'ware. Ye throw
No shade against the wall! How motionless
Ye round me with your living statuary,
While through your whiteness, in and outwardly,
Continual thoughts of God appear to go,
Like light's soul in itself. I bear, I bear
To look upon the dropt lids of your eyes,
Though their external shining testifies
To that beatitude within which were
Enough to blast an eagle at his sun:
I fall not on my sad clay face before ye,—I look on His. I know
My spirit which dilateth with the woe
Of His mortality,
May well contain your glory.
Yea, drop your lids more low.
Ye are but fellow-worshippers with me!
Sleep, sleep, my worshipped One!
It’s Mary’s feast today. She matters because she is the mother of Jesus. Let’s read the thoughts of a 19th Century Protestant Englishwoman.
Elizabeth Barrett published this suite of twelve verses in 1838, before she met Robert Browning. I say ‘suite of verses’ for each one can stand as a poem in its own right. In these first two verses Mary speaks tenderly to her Son, trying to establish what their relationship will become. Jesus new-born, sleeps on, exhausted. What will become of them both? We will publish a further selection of the verses over the next three days.
In the stained glass window Jesus is old enough to learn to read and be in Joseph’s workshop, with a rose bush and a palm tree outside.
THE VIRGIN MARY TO THE CHILD JESUS
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
But see the Virgin blest Hath laid her babe to rest. Milton's Hymn on the Nativity.
I. Sleep, sleep, mine Holy One! My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know A name that seemeth not too high or low, Too far from me or heaven: My Jesus, that is best! that word being given By the majestic angel whose command Was softly as a man's beseeching said, When I and all the earth appeared to stand In the great overflow Of light celestial from his wings and head. Sleep, sleep, my saving One!
II. And art Thou come for saving, baby-browed And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving? The palm that grows beside our door is bowed By treadings of the low wind from the south, A restless shadow through the chamber waving: Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun, But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth, Dost seem of wind and sun already weary. Art come for saving, O my weary One?
More from EBB tomorrow; the whole suite can be found on line.
Another serious and humorous story. E.V. Lucas crossed the US from West to East soon after the Great War, staying in hotels or with friends. It was about 14 years since a destructive earthquake hit San Francisco, but California was still booming. There were, though, a few people who were rather more solitary, and here we meet one of them.
I heard many stories in America, where every one is a raconteur, but none was better than this, which my San Francisco host narrated, from his own experience, as the most perfect example of an honest answer ever given.
When a boy, he said, he was much in the company of an old trapper in the Californian mountains. During one of their expeditions together he noticed that a camp meeting was to be held, and out of curiosity he persuaded Reuben to attend it with him. Perched on a back seat, they were watching the scene when an elderly Evangelical sister placed herself beside the old hunter, laid her hand on his arm, and asked him if he loved Jesus. He pondered for some moments and then replied thus: “Waal, ma’am, I can’t go so far as to say that I love Him. I can’t go so far as that. But, by gosh, I’ll say this—I ain’t got nothin’ agin Him.”
From “Roving East and Roving West” by E. V. Lucas, 1921.
There are times when I feel the old trapper’s words are spot on: ‘Love him. I can’t go so far as that.’ That would be an honest but incomplete assessment based on conscience rather than aspiration. Think of Peter at the end of John’s Gospel: he was more than aware of his lack of love, but still said to Jesus, You know I love you.
Perhaps the trapper had pondered these things in his heart during his hours, days, and weeks of mountain solitude, but he was not ready with the right words when the sister touched his arm.
Frank Solanki is a perennially productive poet with a great sense of humour that does not hide his serious side. I thought I’d share this poem with you. Just click on the link below, and let’s pray that the gift of gratitude be given to us all and received and shared by us all.
The tradition of using the funny side to approach a profound message goes back to the parables of Jesus, in fact to the crazy things the prophets did, like Elijah or Jeremiah.
Pope Francis’s Prayer Intention for Evangelization: – The Church Let us pray for the Church, that She may receive from the Holy Spirit the grace and strength to reform herself in the light of the Gospel.
Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus climbed a mountain with chosen Apostles, Peter, James and John. There he appeared to them shining like the sun, his clothes as white as light, and alongside him, Moses and Elijah from the Old Testament. They heard the voice from heaven saying this is my beloved Son, Listen to him. (Matthew 17)
Where did this experience get them on Good Friday? John stayed by the Cross, James slept through the Agony. Peter denied knowing Jesus, three times, while he was trying to get near enough to find out what was happening: a muddled, timid, self-protecting response.
Yet Peter was the Rock on which Jesus built his Church. A church that has felt rocky, rather than rock-like of late. We do need the grace of the Spirit, each and every one of us. And we so-called laity must pray for the grace to reform ourselves in the light of the Gospel of our transfigured, lifted-up and risen Lord.
A Ugandan ‘thank you’ to Pope Francis for creating the catechist ministry by Lazar Arasu from National Catholic Reporter, June 30. A taste of the article follows; the whole piece can be found at this link.
Moses Kiggwa is a dedicated catechist in Kamuli parish within Jinja Diocese, which is about 70 miles east of our capital of Kampala. Besides training as a primary teacher, he also trained himself as a catechist.
“I find joy in being a catechist more than anything else,” Moses told me recently. He eventually gave up his teaching career to be a full-time evangelizer. He noted with pride that he has helped to found several sub-parishes in the remote areas of his parish, along the Nile River.
Now in his late 50s, he is still committed to educating people to faith. Riding his bicycle for several years in his evangelization efforts has created serious health problems, but he is only happy that he has sustained the faith of several hundreds of people.
Surely there are lessons for the rest of the Church from the long-standing ministry of catechists in countries like Uganda?