Tag Archives: Mary

28 April: This is my body!

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We were put off by the grandiose monuments in the Conventual Franciscans’ church in Venice. A six metre high pyramid or a balcony upheld by gigantic black strongmen: I don’t see what their place is in a Christian church. Worse by far than what we have in Canterbury. But no more of that.

Take a look instead at this wall carving; it may be small but it says more than the marble monstrosities, however clever their workmanship.

This is Easter morning, first thing, before Mary reaches the tomb. The rising sun is gilding the tree and shining upon the One who has risen. An angel watches over him, as always. The angels had to watch the events of Thursday night and Friday without intervening. Were they already reassured that all would be well? We cannot know their experience of time.

Jesus is experiencing time, and space and all his senses, in a completely new way. The warmth of the sun on his chest makes him stop and think: This is my body!

His left hand explores his wounded side: no, I can feel it, but it doesn’t hurt. I can breathe freely, but I carry the marks, the stigmata, (as Saint Francis was to do). Time has left other marks, blotches, bruises, that probably were not all intended by the artist, but they point to this moment when Jesus took those first breaths, not in his new body, but in his body renewed, transformed; or in the process of transformation, in that twinkling of an eye, before he dressed and went out to meet Mary. Surely, with the blood flowing again – as we see it is – the bruises will disappear.

It was important to Jesus in this moment to explore his risen body, to know what he was waking up to. So, Thomas, come and put your hand in the mark of the nails, put your hand in my side, stop doubting and believe – just as I did last week!

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17 April: Stations for Peter XI: Jesus speaks to his Mother.

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Jesus spoke to his mother, but Peter was not beside him and Mary. Jesus asked John to care for his mother.

Scripture references: Peter a long way off: Luke 22:54-55; 23:49; Mary and John at the Cross: John 19: 25-27; Peter’s mother-in-law: Matthew 3:14-15.

I was not there, not really there. Back in the crowd I was.

I don’t think he could even see me, and no way could I hear his gasping words, but young John was there, John was listening closely.

Jesus knew John was there, and his mother, Mary. He told John to care for her.

I would have done it.

Didn’t he care for my mother-in-law?

I let him down again.

Let us pray for everyone caring for other people’s parents, and their own; for adoptive and foster children and parents, and for all who work with children.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom!

Window, St Mary, Rye, Sussex, MMB.

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April 5. Before the Cross XXI: The power of evil is poured out on Jesus

I think Jesus might be dead… Or extremely close to death. The thought of His lifeless body growing cold terrifies me. Or of struggling to hear if He’s still breathing. Or hearing Him struggling to breathe. He has become nothing but weakness and pain and death. He has united Himself to us, even in our weakness and pain and death, even our oppression and victimhood. If you are united to the oppressed, you share their oppression.
Jesus is completely naked. He is left with nothing hidden, no protection, nothing off limits. His last possession, His final mark of dignity, is stripped from Him. Here He is. The authorities were trying to expose Jesus as a fraud, as a pathetic, weak, failure. What they did instead, was expose the fullness of His love, in giving absolutely everything, absolutely all of Himself, to His wife, the Church. Nothing at all has been held back from His beloved.
His mother is there, in the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, at the foot of the Cross. The blood from Jesus’ feet has run down onto her; she shares His death by her love; if He is bloody, she is bloody. In the icon, we can see the child Jesus: it is the same Jesus and same Mary, when Mary held Him in her arms, and when she stood at the foot of His cross. He is her child.
Why have an icon of Mary in the image, and not just Mary? Because Jesus told us, “Behold, your mother”, and the icon is where we do that. Behold her. She is our mother, the mother of the New Creation in Jesus Christ. And at the foot of the Cross, in her sufferings she is giving birth to us, the Church. Behold your mother: know her and love her.
Behind the cross we have the Church, led by Pope St. John Paul II (the Pope when it was painted, and also a great saint of the cross). The Church is at the foot of the cross, because that is where Jesus is. He gives His life to us on the cross, and that is where we must go to receive it. He unites Himself to us in our sin and suffering, and unites us to Himself in His obedience and glory. He offers Himself and us to the Father, and we must let Him. He unites Himself to us by sharing our death, and we must unite ourselves to Him by sharing His.
Then there are the many crosses. The cross has gone forth through the world, and through it, the sufferings of the world are being united to Jesus and offered to the Father. Through the cross, the sufferings of the world are becoming love, and being borne with the hope of resurrection. The world is being divinised through its suffering.
Jesus is either dead or nearly dead. He is pinned down so He can’t move. He is bleeding all over. He is physically torn apart by His own gravity. He is mocked openly by His enemies. He is stripped naked and put on display. He is annihilated. Evil has won.
But it doesn’t have the last word. This image seems to show Satan’s victory. On the cross we see God fully under evil’s power, but in this, evil is overcome, because He transforms it into His own love. All of the power of evil is poured out on Jesus, and all of it is overcome by being transformed into Jesus’s self-gift.
This post is from Ignatius, an old friend of Agnellus. Ignatius went to Poland for World Youth Day in 2016. This painting is from the Stations of the Cross by Jerzy Duda Grasz at Jasna Gora in Częstochowa, Poland. As Ignatius says, this is not a risen Jesus, but these stations, like Ignatius’ reflection, do end in resurrection. You can find the full pilgrimage of stations here.
I am very grateful to Ignatius for this reflection. There is room for us all before the Cross.
WT.

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27 March: Before the Cross XIII: Peace or Power?


osagie.osifo.x.rupertCrucified Jesus between two standing figures by Osagie Osifo

A wooden panel displayed in the Catholic Chapel of the University of Ibadan, carved by Osagie Osifo in 1961. (Willett, F. 2002 African Art London, Thames & Hudson Ltd.)

Here, Jesus is flanked by Mary, his mother, and John the “beloved disciple”, in a moment that could not be more serene. Mary and John both have their eyes closed, and their hands positioned as if in prayer. The object of their devotion is obviously the crucified Jesus, who, raised above and between them, forms the focus of the carving. Adding to the peace and calm of the image are the leaves: trefoil forms (possibly alluding to the trinity of the Christian God), while the simple interlace designs at top and bottom call to mind those of Celtic art. I think the whole composition has something of a Celtic “feel” to it.

Except, of course, that this is clearly an African work, and specifically one informed by the art and history of the kingdom of Benin, now a part of Nigeria. Osagie Osifo, himself from Benin, has fashioned this image deliberately to echo the famous bronzes, “rescued” by a British punitive expedition in 1897 mounted against the Oba (King of Benin) and his chiefs.

The Oba ruled over a highly organised society which, though famed now for its art and advanced understanding of casting bronze, was also extremely warlike. It was a culture where much of the religion and ritual was focused upon the King himself and on his ancestors. Some of these customs have been restored and are practised today in modern Benin. Osifo’s carving of Jesus challenges this in the most radical way.

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https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.332/

The Oba stands between two of his officials in this bronze plaque. He holds a huge sword in one hand, and a staff of office on the other. The three figures are helmeted, the Oba appearing the most fearsome of all with his distinctive collar and his domineering stance. His helmet is spiked. Nothing in this image would signify peace or tranquillity; it has only to do with naked power and aggression. By substituting the Oba for Jesus, and the two warriors for Mary and John, Osifo has consciously declared his position: Christ is Lord. He alone is worthy of worship.

Stylistically, Jesus and the Oba might share some characteristics: short legs and long arms, and both sport a similar wrapped garment with its hem rising to the waist at the front. (And there are leaf shapes on the Oba’s bronze background, too). But there the similarity ends. Much as with the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate, here two entirely opposite world-views collide. The one exercises power by bullying and coercion, military might and political clout. The other, relying on the power and authority of a loving Father, chooses to suffer, and dies on a cross.

Osifo’s carving is beautiful in its own right, but for me it becomes all the more so as I consider how it, and how the gospel, subverts the traditional order of things. Paul writes to the church at Colossae:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Col.2:15.

The work is a beautifully contextualised statement on how Jesus challenges that which diminishes our humanity, oppresses us, or distracts us from our true vocation. It is in recognising the truth of Israel’s God and of the one he sent, that we can then see a hope for the world. Without him, insecurity and violence are sure to reign. The carving redeems something of Benin’s art, but in doing so must drastically alter it. Rightly, Jesus is at the centre, and the true power lies – as it should in our lives – in the crucifixion itself.

Rupert Greville

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26 March. Before the Cross XII: the beatific vision.

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Rood, Our Lady and English Martyrs, Cambridge.

This Crucifix is like that of Tignes a couple of days ago in one respect: it is a representation of the Risen Christ, but in a different context, and equally valid.

This Victorian Rood, full of symbolism, is in the Catholic Church of Or Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, England. It is challenging in a different way to some of the other images we have seen this Lent, but like the Welcoming Christ, it is essentially an image of resurrection. No way is this Christ dead or in agony!

So what is the Rood telling us?

Let’s start with the Christ figure. We see a man in the prime of life, vigorously alive, not hanging naked on the cross but standing tall and robed in majesty. No-one could say of him, he cannot save himself! The crown on his head is of royal gold, not thorns; the nails in his hands and feet are in gold also, but lest we forget the earthly reality of the cross, we see red blood on his palms and insteps. As well as a King’s crown, he wears the long white alb and the red scarf or stole of a priest vested for Mass.

The white scarf around his neck is called a pallium. These are woven from lambs’ wool and given to archbishops by the pope. One appears on the coat of arms of Canterbury Anglican diocese and that of Westminster Catholic diocese. As well as announcing Christ as high priest, the pallium is associated with the idea of the Good Shepherd who brings home the lost sheep, and with the sacrificial Lamb of God.

The alb is a symbol of purity – we see in the Book of Revelation all the saints in white garments. Christ’s here has red trimmings; together with the red stole they tell of blood shed in martyrdom or persecution. The priest celebrating Mass today wears an alb to show that he is representing Christ, the High Priest, and seeks to be as saintly as the white garment implies. Christ, of course, has every right to wear the white garment, and each baptised Christian is given a white garment at Baptism: so we are crucified and risen with Christ: a thought to sustain us in times of hardship.

At the foot of the Cross stand Mary – the dedicatee of the Church, and John the Apostle and Evangelist. They are not mourning in this Resurrection Crucifixion but are absorbed in the beatific vision: this cross presents the artist’s interpretation of the true meaning of the Crucifixion.

Angels adore the Lord from around the Cross: again sending us to Revelation and pointing out the one-ness of Creation, of our world of time and space where Jesus died in Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem where he is Priest and King; King of All Creation, not just of the Jews.

At the foot of the Cross and along its trunk and arms are stylised leaves and grapes: in John’s Gospel Jesus says, I am the Vine, make your home in me as I make mine in you. The wine pressed from the fruit of the Cross brings relief from our spiritual thirst and joy to our hearts. Take up your Cross daily and follow me – to the Crucifixion, yes, in smaller and bigger ways each day, but to the risen life each day as well, even before we die and go to meet the Good Shepherd.

Finally, at the feet of Jesus we see a chalice – for the cup at every Eucharist is indeed the Holy Grail, the cup of the Last Supper – and above the cup, marked with a Cross and radiant in gold, is a round of white unleavened bread; the ‘forms of bread and wine’ that make present in our day all that this Crucifix sets out to tell us.

If, like me, silence does not always come easily to your heart in church or in prayer, maybe sitting with this image can help direct your thoughts to the eternal reality which it professes. The whole story of Jesus is symbolised here from his birth to Mary, up to John running to the empty tomb and seeing and believing – and witnessing to what he believed. May we be ever more faithful witnesses to what we believe.

MMB

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25 March: The Annunciation of our Lord.

A poem for the Feast of the Annunciation, from Sheila Billingsley, mother in the days before scans and ultrasound, and now grandmother and great-grandmother – and poet.

 

And the Word … 

Sitting before the scan,

An embryo great-grandchild.

Fitting so safely, so securely.

What are you feeling ?

What are you hearing ?

Did you hear your mother singing ?

Her laughter ?

Did you feel in your enveloping nest,

Her touch as she moved ?

The warmth of your sun ?

The deepening silence of your night ?

Oh! Minute yet transparent child,

Complete

With those predestined hands and feet ?

And later, did you feel joy

In your growing infantile strength,

Those fingers that would touch and heal ?

Your limbs so weak, so strong, the skin so soft.

Until the womb could no longer hold you.

Did you hear your angel voices that night ?

Feel your winter’s chill ?

The hands that held you, wrapped you, touched you …

Oh, but your eyes

Opening tentatively in the dim light,

Your eyes, did they seek

The eyes that sought for yours ?

 

 

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March 15, Feast of Saint Longinus. Before the Cross II: The Centurion, 1.

 

Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses

Rembrandt  1653 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition names the centurion Longinus, supposing that it was he who drove the lance into Jesus’s side. A number of traditions grew up around him in the early church, among them that he was martyred. As a saint, he is now remembered by Roman Catholics on the 16th. October, though his original feast day was the 15th. March (still kept in the Extraordinary form). He appears in Luke and Mark’s gospels confessing by himself, and in Matthew, confessing together with the other guards. The spearman in John’s gospel is only identified as “one of the soldiers”; we cannot know if this was the centurion himself or one of the soldiers under his command. Nevertheless, responsibility for ensuring that all three crucifixion victims had died would have rested with him.

In this print, Rembrandt depicts the moment of Jesus’s death, after three hours of unnatural darkness. The eye is drawn towards Christ on the cross, but the crowded scene is one of contrasting human responses to revelation. Some run away, others stand in awe. Mary has fainted, overwhelmed by grief. Mounted Roman soldiers continue, unmoved, in their menace, but the centurion kneels at the foot of the cross to declare “Surely this was a righteous man”.

Though Luke doesn’t record that the centurion heard the exchange between Jesus and the two thieves, it seems likely that he would have made it his business to listen. We cannot know at what point during that day he recognised the uniqueness of Jesus among all the men he had executed, from the trial where Pilate declares him to be innocent, up to the time of his death. But I imagine that Jesus’s extraordinary compassion towards an anguished soul (while in the midst of his own suffering) compounds with all the other questions that Jesus had raised in the centurion’s mind that morning – and with this strange darkness – to persuade him, not only of the injustice in which he has played such an active role, but also of its massive cosmic significance.

The penitent thief (a Jew) and the confessing centurion (a gentile) both recognised the truth, and indeed the understatement, of the words on Pilate’s sign intended to mock Jesus: “King of the Jews”. The true King welcomed them, one at the point of physical death, and the other in a radically restored life, purpose and hope. The one, cursed and shamed by the world for crimes he acknowledged, yet received by Jesus; the other, an enforcer of Roman law and follower of the imperial cult, moved and shaken by his involvement in an act of barbaric injustice, now knowing that he was in the presence of the true “Son of God”. And so he also welcomes us, whatever our past, and whatever our blindness has been towards him. He welcomes us to participate in a kingdom on earth that has not grown out of human competition or military might. He welcomes us to the very presence of the living God.

Rupert Greville.

Rupert Greville is a member of the L’Arche Kent Community.

 

 

 

 

 

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11 February: Of such is the kingdom of God

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I thought I’d put these two passages together for the Sunday when we read the extract from Luke – only to find that these verses are not used. So here we are today instead, it’s Mary’s feast day and she features in this post.

And they brought unto him also infants, that he might touch them. Which when the disciples saw, they rebuked them. But Jesus, calling them together, said: Suffer the children to come to me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Amen, I say to you: Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a child, shall not enter into it.

Luke 18:15-17.

I am used to rather sentimental pictures of this story, a stained glass Jesus who looks like a film star, perfectly trimmed beard, freshly shampooed blond hair …

But I cast my mind back and thought of the children making the Way of the Cross with me in St Thomas’ church, Canterbury. Spontaneously a group of them gathered around the life size Mary and Jesus in the Pieta. wanting to stroke, console and condole with the Sorrowful Mother.

There was no disrespect in this, and mercifully, no-one present took offence. Yet I could imagine the tut-tuts that might have been uttered another time. No doubt the little ones who met Jesus in the flesh wanted to touch him and climb all over him, and it’s not difficult to envisage the disciples trying to pull them away. But ‘of such is the kingdom of God.’ I think it is fair to let this phrase suggest that Jesus felt himself within the kingdom when the children were swarming over him.

Pope Francis gave his customary press conference on the plane returning from World Youth Days in Panama

At the end of the conference the Pope thanked reporters for their work, and left them with a final thought about Panama: “I would like to say one thing about Panama: I felt a new sentiment, this word came to me: Panama is a noble nation. I found nobility.

“And then”, he concluded, “I would like to mention something else, which we in Europe do not see and which I saw here in Panama. I saw the parents raising their children and saying: this is my victory, this is my pride, this is my future. In the demographic winter that we are living in Europe – and in Italy it is below zero – it must make us think. What is my pride? Tourism, holidays, the villa, the dog? Or the child?”

I am proud of my children, though (or even because) they are all very different. But it would not be a healthy pride if they needed to win my approval rather than doing right, and following their own vocation rather than one laid down by their parents. I can say of my family – with those Panamanian parents – this is my victory, this is my pride, this is my future. Though I trust I will not be too much of a burden to any of them when I’m definitely doddering!

Brocagh School in Ireland, 50 years ago.

 

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2 February: The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

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The Nunc Dimittis Canticle is recited every night in the Catholic Church; in Anglican churches, such as Canterbury Cathedral, it is sung during Vespers. It is originally the Song of Simeon; the old man was overcome with joy and peace when he met the little scrap of humanity that was ‘the Salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.’

That was the easy bit when I was asked to play Simeon in a mystery play at Canterbury Cathedral three years ago. My grandson was already too big for the part but the doll we borrowed did not steal the scene. I could concentrate on the Baby, the Father -and then Mary.

It is a massive shift of key as the prophetic revelation finds utterance, and yet we know it is true: a sword will pierce her heart – indeed there is a tradition of the seven sorrows of Mary. I had to come down from my great joy in an instant and look into Mary’s eyes with an overwhelming compassion that was neither mine, nor yet Simeon’s, but the Father’s.

Thirty years after the Presentation that compassion would be brought to practical life by John.

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This window from Saint Mary’s in Rye, Sussex shows Mary, almost blind with grief, following her adoptive son by the hand. She turns her back on the apple tree of temptation and stumbles trustingly towards the Vine.

The empty Cross is a point of light against the night sky: sorrow will be replaced by joy, overturning the order of Simeon’s vision. This is a John’s Gospel window. We also see the Great Bear in the stars. If a star told of his coming, this constellation points to the North Star by which we can find our way to him.

I am the way.

Anyone who wants to follow me must take up their cross daily and follow me.

 

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December 31: A hero all the world wants.

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Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury

We have been listening to the poets over Christmas; now here is another of them, Gerard Manly Hopkins, this time a paragraph or two from his sermon for Sunday evening, November 23 1879. It is a poet’s sermon! The full text is on pp136ff of the Penguin edition of his poems and prose, edited by W.H. Gardner; worth seeking out.

 

St Joseph though he often carried our Lord Jesus Christ in his arms and the Blessed Virgin though she gave him birth and suckled him at her breast, though they seldom either of them had the holy child out of their sight and knew more of him far than all others, yet when they heard what holy Simeon a stranger had to say of him, the Scripture says they wondered.

Not indeed that they were surprised and had thought to hear something different but that they gave their minds up to admiration and dwelt with reverent wonder on all God’s doings about the child their sacred charge. Brethren, see what a thing it is to hear about our Lord Jesus Christ, to think of him and dwell upon him; it did good to these two holiest people, the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph, even with him in the house God thought good to give them lights by the mouth of strangers. It cannot but do good to us, who have more need of holiness, who easily forget Christ, who have not got him before our eyes to look at . . .

Our Lord Jesus Christ, my brethren, is our hero, a hero all the world wants.

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