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.