Sunday, December 24, 2017

Welcome to Our World

By John O'Brien, S.J.

(with apologies: it's a somewhat longer homily-essay, because of the solemnity of the feast)

This evening we celebrate the vigil of Christmas. It is a Mass that is different from the Midnight Mass to be observed later tonight or the Christmas morning Mass tomorrow. All three Masses are different and have different readings. If you are a spiritual diehard, you can attend all three and derive different intellectual and spiritual benefits; but if this present Mass, the Vigil, is the only Christmas Mass you are attending this year, you are fortunate to have heard one of the significant Gospels in the Church calendar year: Matthew’s genealogy, which ends with the dream of Joseph. You know the story: the Angel of Lord tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for against all odds of probability, she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, and that they are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew, whose Gospel was written primarily for a readership of Jewish Christians, underlines the connection of Joseph’s dream to the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah, who said “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'." That the translators of the ancient prophetic texts knew that the word for young woman of the prophecy should be rendered “virgin” is an indication of their sense of what the prophecy was actually pointing to: something almost incomprehensible, but certainly extraordinary, would happen in the fullness of time, when God and humanity were ready.

How charged with drama this story is! How much depended on Mary believing the angel who appeared to her; how much depended on Joseph believing the angel who spoke to him in a dream. That the future of humanity’s redemption, according to this plan of God, rested upon the belief and assent of these two humble persons, Mary and Joseph; that all of Israel’s history, from the first time God spoke to Abraham, through Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt, through the various captivities over hundreds of years and the prophets who were sent to exhort and encourage: all of this history, which we know as the Old Testament, was oriented to these two moments of decision on the part of Mary and then of Joseph. These humble children of Israel, who had listened intently to the word of God all their lives, had become sensitive to his will and his voice, such that they could recognize it when it came. And thus, they were ready to be the key players in the great moment of salvation: when God-in-heaven would become God-with-us.

There are people who struggle with the whole history of salvation question, and ask why the incarnation of Jesus, with his subsequent rejection and passion, death and resurrection was necessary. Why couldn’t the Divine Creator have waved his divine hand and restored creation to its original wholeness? Why did it require the burden of Bethlehem and of the Cross? I can understand this line of questioning, for the burden, in certain respects, falls upon us too: we are also tasked with the responsibility of cooperating with God in the ongoing work of salvation, of overcoming sin in our lives and helping restore all things to God. And sometimes that feels like work!

But God had one very special reason for planning salvation the way he did. Of course God could have pointed his finger and instantly renewed creation, but he wanted it to happen in a greater way. God wanted creation itself to be an actor in its own re-creation, to be a participant in its restoration to wholeness. This particular plan can only be understood as the act of a loving parent, for a good parent knows that inviting the child to help fix what the child had broken, ennobles and gives dignity to the child.

My father, who is an artist, tells the story of how once, when we were kids, he had left a painting to dry on our dining room table. This painting was made on a kind of micro-particle board called Masonite. Masonite is exceptionally sturdy and will last forever – as long as it doesn’t get soaked, for then the fibers will separate and the image will be ruined. That day, one of my brothers, who at around five or six years old had a knack for both creative and accidentally destructive activities, ran the bathtub upstairs, plugged the drains with a cloth (for reasons unknown), and watched it spill over and flood the floor. It then proceeded to drip through the ceiling and onto dad’s painting, which began to curl, causing the water to collect on the image. When my father discovered his creation was ruined, he gave a cry of alarm, followed by a veritable storm of understandable emotions. My little brother was quite contrite, but then he and my father took a bunch of towels and gently began to attempt to dry the painting (The painting was of The Baptism of the Lord, by the way!). In the end, hope beyond hope, the painting survived, and the particles did not disintegrate. But most of all, my little brother was so happy that he was able to help repair the damage he'd inadvertently caused. It allowed him to regain his dignity, and he and my father had a special bond after that.

In a way, God’s plan for restoring his broken creation is similar. He wanted us to be involved in the work of repairing the damage of original sin. So Jesus Christ, the Divine Son of God, descends into our world, but at the same time, is also be fully human, fully man, a member of the human race, of the Israelite nation, son of Mary and son of Joseph. His human nature is given him by Mary. Mary, who is daughter Zion, gives her yes representing all of Israel. Israel represents all the nations of the earth. The nations, of course, represent the world, which is all bound up and dependant upon this young woman, a girl named Mary of Nazareth, who gives God his human nature.

So on the vigil of Christmas, we give thanks to God for inviting us to be co-participants, though Mary and Joseph, in the drama of our redemption. It’s a logic that continues to be at play in the dramas of our own lives and the work of our own individual salvation. God sends us the graces from above, but we are invited to be participants, to prepare our hearts, to cultivate a listening spirit, receptivity, and thereby conceive within our hearts and lives nothing less than Jesus Christ himself. When this happens, the healing of ancient hurts and wounds takes place; the overcoming of addictions and bad habits occurs; the forgiveness of offenses made against us, grudges that hold us captive and corrode us from within -- they start to melt and the freedom of new life begins to spread its warmth. This leaving behind of the old man and woman, and becoming the men and women each of us was intended to be from the beginning, to be "people of the heart", to be adopted sons and daughters of God the Father – this is the good news of Jesus Christ Son of God.

What does it mean to be people of the heart? The great saints and the best of the psychologists say the same thing: that at root, the human heart seeks to engage in essentially three activities: it wants to hear and be heard, it wants to see and be seen, and it wants to know and be known. Love, both when it is given and received, always is specified in one of these acts. Yes, the heart is something that "feels", but in the real world, the heart wants the concreteness of hearing/seeing/knowing and being heard/seen/known. We yearn for this. This is why God has given himself to us in the scriptures. So we can hear his voice when his word is proclaimed, so we can see him when we imagine in our mind’s eye his coming in the flesh, so we can know our God, who is revealed in his Word, revealed as John says, to be Love itself.

As we enter into the great and holy mystery of Christmas, let us ask ourselves how our love might better hear, better see, and better know those whom we are called to love. How we might imitate God who forgives his creatures their sins and their weaknesses. How we might be profoundly grateful that he has sent his Son, present to us today in the Word of God, the Eucharist on the Altar, in the persons of the poor who are all around us, and in all persons of our families and communities – that God is indeed “with us”, Emmanuel,  who, as the prophet Isaiah said in the first reading, calls us to be no more forsaken, our land no more to be called desolate, but rather that the Lord “delights in you” – just as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your God rejoice over you!

Given all this, let us enter Christmas now with a prayer to Him who is coming to be born among us, a welcoming of the Christ Child to our world:

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking,
how we need to hear from God.
You’ve been promised, we've been waiting,
Welcome Holy Child,
Welcome Holy Child.

Hope that you don’t mind our manger

How I wish we would have known
But long awaited Holy Stranger
Make Yourself at home,
please make yourself at home.

Bring your peace into our violence
Bid our hungry Souls be filled.
Word now breaking Heaven’s silence
Welcome to our world,
Welcome to our world.

Fragile finger sent to heal us
Tender brow prepared for thorn
Tiny heart, whose blood will save us
Unto us is born,
Unto us is born.

So wrap our injured flesh around You
Breath our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy
Perfect Son of God,
Perfect Son of God.

Welcome to our world.

(Welcome to Our World, written by Chris Rice)

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Prepare the Way of the Lord

On this second Sunday of Advent we hear the opening lines of Mark’s Gospel. Mark is believed to have been the secretary of Peter and Paul and wrote his Gospel in the year 70 from Rome. A writer. some say, will put his most important idea in the first line of his text. Here the first line is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Mark is telling us what his whole Gospel is about: that there is something new to know, and it is profoundly good. So what is the evangelion, the good news of Jesus Christ, anyway?

The Jews experienced exile for much of their history. And now, although they were in their homeland, they were under the occupation of the Romans. Israel is waiting for a messiah to restore her to her true mission and identity of being "a light to the nations".

"A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light". Mark’s news is that Jesus Christ is the messianic figure they have been waiting for. But the enemy, says Mark, is not Caesar. Rather, there is a strange twist. John the Baptist is “preparing the way of the Lord” by preaching “a baptism of repentance”. That’s a rather odd thing to be preaching, when you are waiting for your liberator. What does repentance have to do with anything when you are the oppressed people?

Yet this is the message of this strange new Messiah: the oppression we might experience on the outside is a small thing compared to the oppression we might feel on the inside. Or put another way: we can only begin to bring about God's kingdom if we first reform ourselves. We are all exiles, in a sense, and we long to find our true homeland. Most of us feel imprisoned one way or another. We might be enslaved by our addictions, by our weaknesses, by our frustrations, by our faults. In short, we feel at times the lack of love in our life. Our true liberation will come only when we throw off the chains that hold us in bondage, and discover our true homeland that is with Jesus Christ. “The kingdom of God is within you!” he said.

John the Baptist knew we would find our freedom when we meet Jesus, but for this to happen, our hearts have to be prepared. How do we “make his paths straight”, which is to say, how do I prepare the road for him to come to me? Many of the streets in Regina, Saskatchewan, have large bumps and sudden depressions because of the cold winters that cause the earth to heave with the frost. They sometimes impede smooth travelling around town, and can even ruin the axles of cars if one hits them too fast. Our Advent task is to make smooth the roadways into our hearts for the Lord.

How do we fulfill that Advent task? It means, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has said, "we must search deep inside for that turning point in our innermost self, the place where we turn from the 'I' to the 'thou' and to God, from a sterile living for ourselves, to a fruitful and joy-filled living for others." (You Crown the Year with Your Goodness). We must accept the insistence of John the Baptist that we go to the Jordan River. We do this by praying to God with our families, reading the scriptures a little bit each day, and confessing our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation. When we do these things we are bathing in the river of mercy; thus, the same means of preparation are as available to us as they were to the people in John's time.

Today, December 10, we are exactly in the middle of two Marian feasts. Two days ago we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Two days from now is the feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. It’s like we are standing in the middle of Mary’s great spirit breathing "yes" to the coming of the Lord. Mary was the first fully prepared to receive Jesus Christ, so much so, that she received him bodily in her womb, and gave him her flesh and blood. As such, she is the “mother of Advent”, the queen of hearts preparing to receive her Son. Like her, we are all empowered to become pregnant with Christ, that is to say, to carry him in ourselves and bear him to the world.

It is not complicated, but we do need to be reminded of it with frequency. We carry Jesus when we are kind to our brothers and sisters, when we love our spouses, when we bear patiently the small humiliations that happen in our lives, and turn them into opportunities for love, a superhuman act which is true power. When we turn to God each morning and each evening and say: “thank you, Lord, for the gift of life. You have given everything to me. I offer it back to you.” These are the acts that transform us into a free people. And nobody – no Caesar, no tyrant, no bully, no bad boss at work – nobody can take that away from us. For we belong to God and God belongs to us.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kurelek in Niagara Falls

For a period of six years, 1957-1963, Canadian artist William Kurelek gave himself the task of painting the story of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nobody, to our knowledge, had ever painting a Gospel sentence by sentence, and the finished series consisted of 160 paintings, called The Passion According to Matthew. A book was published in 1975 (now out of print), whose images I contemplated when I was growing up.

Kurelek went to the Holy Land to research the project, and painted steadily, on average completing one painting per week. The paintings would be purchased by the Niagara Falls Art Gallery, a small exhibition space not far from the falls, where they have remained ever since. The gallery is easy to find, but only open for certain restricted hours. I had always wanted to see the paintings, and finally made my pilgrimage last week.

The artist honoured the gallery by making a sketch of its exterior that appears the book:

Most of the major exhibition space in the gallery has now been converted to children's art programming, which evidently keeps the private gallery afloat. The magnificent collection of Kureleks are confined to a few basement rooms, which the attendants will graciously lead you to when you arrive.

Only about 40 of the 160 Passion paintings are on display at any given time. But they stunning. They begin with the Last Supper.

And continue with various scenes of the passion:

In addition to the Passion series, a number of Kurelek's other paintings are in the gallery, and the owners did not shy away from collecting his more powerful and disturbing works. For instance, "All Things Betray Thee Who Betrayest Thee" (1970) depicts the artist sitting up in bed struggling with depression, while a moon-illumined field of cabbages is just outside his window. One can make out a dog at the back the field. Painted just prior to his conversion, the title is a line from the poem "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson, a reference to the God who never ceases to pursue the lost soul.

What might be Kurelek's most disturbing paintings are a diptych called "Love/Hate" (1968), which shows in one panel, medical missionaries in Africa, and in the other, Viet Cong violently torturing villagers suspected of collaboration:

And "Our Mai Lai: the Massacre of Highland Creek" (1971), from Kurelek's "O Toronto" series (a variation on Christ's lament over Jerusalem). The painting shows a creek-bed in a snowy landscape, with the Scarborough Centenary Hospital in the background. Scattered everywhere are garbage bins contained little aborted bodies.

The artist wrote: "I guess it's really the strongest, and probably to some who don't agree with me on the subject of abortion, the most offensive picture. Since, however, I know that unborn babies are living human beings, I believe myself duty-bound to speak for them, because they can't speak out or defend themselves when they are being killed."

Another harrowing picture is "Nuclear Madonna". In the 1960s and 70s, with the spectre of nuclear war, Kurelek felt inclined to warn against this outcome of man's folly. Here one can see jet trails streaking in the sky above a mother and child, while other victims recline beneath a sod shelter.

Kurelek's work, which is featured in collections all over the world, including the National Art Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, ranges widely from the pastoral, the historic, the psychological and religious. At the Niagara Falls Gallery there are also some more gentle human scenes:


The gallery also features something I'd never seen before: Kurelek's homemade signs. While well-known for the homemade frames he made for almost all his paintings, the signs were a revelation:

The gallery has also recreated a replica of the artist's studio, with materials donated from the artist's widow, Jean Kurelek, before her death in 2009:

The Passion According to Matthew is the core of the Niagara Falls Art Gallery collection, and must be seen to be appreciated.  While most of the paintings depict literal events of the narrative, for certain phrases, Kurelek had to be creative. For example, he rendered the ending of the Gospel in this way:

It's well worth visiting this gallery, as long as you make sure it is open before you plan your trip. A pilgrimage to the beautiful chapel of the Carmelite monastery and waterfalls nearby make for a fulsome day.