The turning of the year is the only ritual observance shared universally by humankind. Each religion has its own sacred days scattered across the months, but tonight everyone on earth will join in one great procession, time zone by time zone, into the New Year. We pause a moment to look back, with a mixture of gratitude and regret; then we turn our faces toward the unwritten future. We usually do this with gleeful clamor and warm embraces, welcoming the New with our brightest hopes. The arrival of 2022 may strike a more tentative note.
In my seven years of blogging, I have written a reflection every New Year’s Eve. Most of those posts have been about hope. On the eve of 2017, with my country “teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin,” I hoped that we would “not to be mesmerized by the abyss,” but rather be on the watch for the divine ingenuity “already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history.”
Three years later, with the flag of hope tattered and torn by endless battles, I drew inspiration from Thoreau, who continued his quiet work of studying the natural world even as the Civil War ravaged the American consciousness. We must, he argued, refuse the hypnotic spell of the chaos which seeks to seduce our gaze. The refusal to take our eye from the transcendent goodness and beauty at the heart of things is “the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.”
At the end of 2021, such spiritual poise feels elusive, if not unimaginable. This was supposed to be the year we returned to normal. With COVID now raging like the fires and storms of climate change, and our body politic critically ill with malice and madness, normal is no longer on the itinerary.
Didier Maleuvre, a specialist in the study of Western culture, describes hope as an inherently perilous task: “So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future.” Isn’t that where we find ourselves on the eve of 2022—at the mercy of the future? It is an unnerving time for sure, and few of us will be stepping so bravely into the New Year tonight.
Yet we must, now more than ever, light our candles in this dark and declare our fidelity to the dawn, whenever and however it may come. God desires a better world. However our follies may frustrate and obstruct divine hope, God is wiser than despair. “Behold,” says the Holy One, “I make all things new.”[i] May we all heed the summons to embody that great redemptive labor in our own stories, whether it be in small acts of kindness or collective works of social and spiritual transformation.
The world as we know it is passing away. But death is never the final meaning, only the portal to new birth. Can we embrace this moment in time as an invitation to radical transformation? The Indian writer Arundhati Roy expresses such a hope:
“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus … It has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[ii]
Dear reader, I believe that our faith and our love, as well as our hope, will be severely tested in the coming year. When the demons of weariness and discouragement do their worst, remember the Paschal Mystery: The way down is the way up.
When Dante’s descent into the abyss of Hell reached its deepest point, his downward trajectory ceased. Once the poet passed through the nadir—the center of the earth—his motion became, without a change in direction, an ascent back toward the surface. His journey taught him that even the “lightless way,” if you take it far enough, is bound for glory.
… we climbed the dark until we reached the point where a round opening brought in sight the blest
and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars. And we walked out once more beneath the Stars. [iii]
Dear readers, thank you for engaging with my posts over the last year. I am especially grateful when your own thinking is stirred or your soul is fed by what you find here. My work is to pass on whatever comes to me in reading, experience and the occasional inspiration, planting what seeds I can in the community garden. It is a labor of love. To all who take the time to write a comment or share a post with others, thank you for valuing and extending the conversation.
I wish for you both courage and joy in the New Year. Keep tending the fires of hope!
For summaries and links for previous New Year’s Eve posts, click here.
[ii] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” in Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, (New York: Penguin, 2020). This quote has been widely posted on the Internet, and you can see her read the full text on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7hgQFaeaeo0
[iii] Dante Alighieri, Inferno xxxiv.140-143. John Ciardi translation.
Jesus was walking out of Jericho, surrounded by a big crowd. Like all such crowds, it was a mix of the curious and the adoring. Jesus was at the height of his popularity. He stirred people’s imaginations and raised their hopes. The excitement was palpable. But amid all the festive clamor, a single shout brought this parade to a sudden halt:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It was a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside. His name was Bartimaeus. “Shush,” people said. “Don’t make a scene.” But he cried all the louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And Jesus stood still, just the way the sun had stood still in the sky for Joshua in that same city of Jericho.
“Call him here,” Jesus said. And so they did. “Take heart!” they told him. “Get up. He is calling you.”
Immediately, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang to his feet, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus asked him a question that went straight to the point: “What do you want me to do for you?”
“My teacher,” he said, “Let me see again.” And what Bartimaeus asked, Jesus granted.
— Mark 10: 46-52
In Mark’s gospel, this is the last miracle performed by Jesus before he goes to his death in Jerusalem. It marks the fatal turning point between his ministry and his Passion. It is our Lord’s last act, his last word, before beginning the Way of the Cross. To the world, that looked like the path to oblivion. But to those who have been given the eyes of faith, the Way of the Cross, as we pray every Holy Week, is “none other than the way of life and peace.”
And thus the healing of Bartimaeus is not just the story of one man’s good fortune. It is an invitation to each of us to perceive and receive the vision of salvation which is about to unfold. Mark is telling us that if you want to understand the Paschal Mystery of Passion and Resurrection, you need to open your eyes. And it is crucial to note that the climactic words of this story are not “he regained his sight,” but rather, “he followed him on the way.” Once you see what God is doing through Jesus, then it’s your turn to take up your own cross and follow.
Let there be light!” says the God of Genesis. “I am the light of the world,” says the God incarnate.
And yet, in the story leading up to this moment, even Jesus’ closest friends have suffered their own blindness. “Are your minds closed?” he chides them. “Have you eyes and do not see?” But they go on missing the point again and again. To their credit, they continue to follow Jesus. They are drawn to him, they know something is happening here—but they don’t know what it is. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus sighs. I’m sure he said this more than once.
And then, after repeated examples of the disciples’ blindness throughout Mark’s gospel, suddenly we hear a plaintive voice cry out from the crowd: “Jesus! Have mercy on me. Remove this grievous blindness.”
That’s our prayer too, isn’t it? Lord, take away our blindness.Help us to see. And Jesus replies, “I thought you’d never ask!”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, was one of many theologians who have shared Mark’s diagnosis of the human condition as one of persistent blindness:
“Humanity was created for this end, that it might see ‘good,’ which is God; but because humanity would not stand in the light, [in fleeing from the light] it lost its eyes… We subjected ourselves to blindness, that we should not see the interior light.”
St. Augustine described the interior eye, our capacity to see the things of God, as “bruised and wounded” by the transgression of Adam and Eve, who, he says, “began to dread the Divine light [and] fled back into darkness, anxious for the shade.”
Refusing to stand in the light… subjecting ourselves to blindness. Is this what we do? Are we truly so “anxious for the shade?”
Arthur Zajonc is a quantum physicist who became fascinated with the literal dimensions of this question, examining case histories of blind people who recovered their sight. In his book, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, he tells of an 8-year-old boy, blind at birth from cataracts, who underwent surgery in the year 1910. When the time came to remove his bandages, the doctor was very hopeful. He waved his hand in front of the boy’s eyes, which were now physically perfect.
“What do you see?” asked the doctor. “I don’t know,” the boy replied. “Can’t you see my hand moving?” said the doctor. “I don’t know,” said the boy.
The boy’s eyes did not follow the doctor’s slowly moving hand, but stared straight ahead. He only saw a varying brightness before him. Then the doctor asked him to touch his hand as it moved, and the boy cried out in a voice of triumph, “It’s moving!” He could feel it move, and even, as he said, could “hear it move,” but it would take laborious effort to learn to see it move.
As that first light passed through the child’s newly clear black pupils, it called forth no echoing image from within. His sight, Zajonc tells us, began as a hollow, silent, dark and frightening kind of seeing. The light of day beckoned, but no light of mind replied within the boy’s anxious, open eyes.
“The sober truth” says Zajonc, “remains that vision requires far more than a functioning physical organ. Without an inner light, without a formative visual imagination, we are blind.”
This echoes Augustine’s description of our “bruised and wounded” inner eye. What is it that makes us so unable to process what is before us, to see what is being offered to our open eyes?
The mystical Anglican poet Thomas Traherne framed an answer in the ornately vivid language of the seventeenth century:
“As my body without my soul is a carcass, so is my Soul without Thy Spirit, a chaos, a dark obscure heap of empty faculties ignorant of itself, unsensible of Thy goodness, blind to Thy glory.”
And what are the causes of this abysmal state? he asks. They are several.
“[The Light within us is eclipsed] by the customs and manners of [others], which like contrary winds blew it out: by an innumerable company of other objects, rude, vulgar and worthless things, that like so many loads of earth and dung did overwhelm and bury it: by the impetuous torrent of wrong desires in all others whom I saw and knew that carried me away … from it: by a whole sea of other matters and concernments that covered and drowned it…”
“Contrary winds” blowing out the Light within us… being overwhelmed by “an innumerable company… of rude, vulgar and worthless things”… “the impetuous torrent of wrong desires” – does any of that sound familiar? Who among us has not had days like that, or even years like that? Is that not the world we live in today?
Not long after Traherne wrote those words, another English writer, John Bunyan, told the story of two pilgrims, named Christian and Faithful, who came upon Vanity Fair, a kind of shopping mall where all the transitory pleasures of this world were on seductive display.
“What will ye buy?” cried one of the merchants. And Christian and Faithful replied, “We buy the truth!”
This was clearly the wrong answer, for the two pilgrims were immediately set upon, beaten, smeared with mud, thrown in a cage, and finally put on trial. The jury was rigged, led by Mr. Blind Man and Mr. Hate-Light. “Guilty,” they cried, and Faithful was put to death. But Christian managed to escape, and his journey into God continued.
Bunyan’s allegorical constructs seem quaintly archaic today, but Vanity Fair is still with us, with its endless commodification of unsatisfiable desires. And Mr. Hate-Light is still at work, generating the ceaseless illusions that blind us to the beauty of holiness.
Now once Christian had escaped Vanity Fair, he still had to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the light was so scarce, and the path so narrow, that he was in constant danger of stumbling into the ditch on his right or the quagmire on his left.
But Christian was not without hope in that dark valley. As Isaiah says, the God of light travels with us:
I shall lead the blind by a road they do not know… I shall turn the darkness into light before them, and the quagmire into solid ground. (Isa 42:16)
All of us, deep down, want the light. All of us need the light. But sometimes we resist the light, or run away from it, or shut our eyes to it. There are things we’d rather not see, in the world or in ourselves. Illuminating our dark places can feel like a judgment, as if the light were accusing our shadows.
In Franco Zefferelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, we meet another blind man at the pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem, but unlike Bartimaeus, he is deathly afraid of being healed. “Leave my eyes alone!” he shouts. “Stop touching my eyes!”
After analyzing sixty-six cases of blind people who had recovered their sight, Arthur Zajonc would concur with Zeffirelli’s portrayal of our resistance to an enlarged perception of the world:
“The project of learning to see,” he writes, “inevitably leads to a psychological crisis in the life of the patients, who may wind up rejecting sight. New impressions threaten the security of a world previously built upon the sensations of touch and hearing. Some decided it is better to be blind in their own world than sighted in an alien one… The prospect of growth is as much a prospect of loss, and threat to security, as a bounty.”
In other words, opening our eyes to a more truthful clarity can be scary—no more fictions or illusions about the state of the world or the state of our souls. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). Seeing—clearly and accurately—the fallenness of our broken world—and our wounded selves—is a painful revelation. Once we face facts, transformation is the only way forward. We must change our life. A new way of seeing demands a new way of being. We can either fight that divine summons, like the man in the Zeffirelli film (Don’t touch my eyes!), or we can jump up and embrace it, like Bartimaeus.
But it’s not just the wrongness of things which is hidden by our blindness. The truth is, there is also so much blessing and beauty in this world, eagerly waiting to be discerned and embraced. And whatever our doubts and fears about losing our protective blindness, the beauty revealed will be worth the price. It’s the beauty of God’s future—what Jesus called the Kingdom. We often think of the Kingdom as impossibly distant, but it is possible to glimpse it even now, in this present age. We only need the eyes to see.
This healing of our inner eye, this recovery of the divine Light within us, is perfectly expressed in a passage from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Her protagonist, Jean-Marie Latour, a nineteenth-century missionary bishop to the territory of New Mexico, is discussing visions and miracles with his Vicar.
“Where there is great love,” he says, “there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love .… The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is about us always.”
Human vision corrected by divine love. How blessed are they who receive such a miracle!
Let us close by hearing the gospel story one more time, succinctly told by John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” in an old American shape note hymn called “Villulia.”
“Mercy, O thou Son of David, thus poor blind Bartimaeus prayed. “Others by thy grace are saved, now afford to me thine aid.”
Money was not what he wanted, though by begging used to live; but he asked, and Jesus granted alms which none but he could give.
“Lord, remove this grievous blindness, let mine eyes behold the day.” Straight he saw, and, won by kindness, followed Jesus in the way.
This is the second in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This second reflection concerns “Vigils,” the liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow.
What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “What if you slept?”
The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night, all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.
— Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Vigils is the most fluid of the canonical hours. It may be kept at midnight, or at 3 a.m., or just before dawn, as a prelude to the sunrise hour of Lauds. While the world sleeps, monastics rise from their beds and make their way in the dark to the choir. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict recommends that the first Psalm be read “slowly and deliberately,” to allow the community’s sleepyheads extra time to arrive. “If the resurrection of the dead is anything like getting up in the morning,” complains one monk, “I am not completely convinced that I want to be included.”[i] But prayer never sleeps. “At midnight I will rise to give you thanks,” says the Psalmist. “My eyes are open in the night watches.”[ii]
Vigils is not for all people at all times, but as an occasional practice it has much to offer. Being awake in the night is not like being awake in the day. We are different, our surroundings are different, and time is different. All these differences affect the quality of our consciousness, our physical energies, and our prayer. It’s no accident that the two most mysterious events in the gospels, the Nativity and the Resurrection, took place in deepest night.[iii] “When all things were wrapped in peaceful silence and night was in the midst of its swift course,” said Meister Eckhart, “a secret word leaped down from heaven.…”[iv]
The hours between midnight and dawn should not go unvisited by the waking self. They whisper secrets which sleepers never know. I’ve driven through black nights on lost highways, watched 72-hour film marathons with (mostly) open eyes, arisen at midnight to ascend Mt. Rainier with a headlamp, drifted in and out of sleep lying on the floor of the Fillmore Auditorium in the wee hours of a Grateful Dead concert, and curated all-night multi-sensory worship in a circus tent with 400 Episcopalians.[v] Even though only the last of these was a specifically religious event, I always felt transformed to some degree by my night-journeys. By the time the sun restored the ordinary, I was no longer quite the same person. Something had shifted. Maybe it was the world; maybe it was just my eyes, or my heart. But the next morning I always felt radiant and new, like the first morning of Creation.
What is it about a vigil experience that makes this so? For one thing, my post-midnight self, even when awake, is more prone to a state of reverie, when the daytime’s fully conscious subject gives way to the “night dream” which, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, “does not belong to us. It is not our possession. With regard to us, it is an abductor, the most disconcerting of abductors: it abducts our being from us. Nights, nights have no history.… we are returned to an ante-subjective state. We become elusive to ourselves, for we are giving pieces of ourselves to no matter whom, to no matter what.”[vi]
The world, too, is different in the dark—its solid forms dissolved into shadow, purged of detail and color, cloaked in absence. The noise and strife of daytime forgotten in the hush. Deep, deep silence: like the primordial stillness before the birth of everything. An environment without verbs. “Baptized in the rivers of night,” said Thomas Merton of the Vigils hour, the earth recovers its “innocence.”[vii]
Time slows, pausing deliberately between yesterday and tomorrow. No longer a flowing river, it becomes a pool of infinite depth where we can wash away our hurry-sickness. “A single hour takes a long time to pass,” says a modern Book of Hours, “but living in it is discipleship for eternity.”[viii]
In the Book of Genesis, Jacob has two contrasting experiences at the Vigils hour. In one, he is given a blissful vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, revealing the ultimate Reality so often invisible in the glare of sunlight. In the other, he wrestles desperately with God till dawn.[ix] So it is for us. Sometimes our night vigil is bathed in tranquility and illumined by love. And sometimes we watch anxiously over a sick child or a dying friend, or pray for the ones who are afraid or lost in the dark, or wrestle with our own troubled thoughts, or wait with expectant and vulnerable hearts for the dawn of God.
Benedictine writer Macrina Wiederkeh distills the essence of Vigils prayer, when even the most restlessly wakeful are invited to rest in the sacred pause of what T. S. Eliot called “the uncertain hour before the morning.”[x]
“In the middle of the night, I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep. I pray for those with fearful hearts, for those whose courage is waning. I pray for those who have lost vision of what could be. When I rise in the middle of the night, my prayer is simply one of waiting in silence, waiting in darkness, listening with love. It is a prayer of surrender. In my night watch I do not ordinarily use words. My prayer is a prayer of intent. I make my intention and I wait. I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”[xi]
When I was a teenager, the climactic all-night vigil in Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, made a deep impression on me. In the days of South African apartheid, on the night before his prodigal son’s execution, the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest, climbs a high mountain to pray—for his own failings, for the soul of his son, and for the liberation of his people. Hour after hour, through the darkness, he keeps vigil for Absalom (“my son, my son!”) and for all the broken and lost. When the sun finally breaks the horizon—the very moment of his son’s execution—he makes eucharist with a maize cake and tea, remembering with thanksgiving God’s promise of salvation. “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”[xii]
Over the years, the image of Fr. Kumalo on that nocturnal summit has informed my own affinity for Vigils. There is something profoundly uncanny about every “night watch,” when sleep is forsaken in order to contemplate “the Mystery of the world,”[xiii] whose ineffability is uniquely conveyed in the hours of deepest dark and silence.
At Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the monks would take turns making the rounds of the expansive main building on “fire watch,” guarding the multitude of flammable wooden spaces through the night while the community slept. Thomas Merton’s shift on the night of July 4th, 1952, became for him a vivid metaphor for the spiritual journey into God, related in his famous “Fire Watch” essay.
As Merton moves thoughtfully and prayerfully through the monastic spaces, he retraces his personal history as a monk. Every room is inscribed with significant memory. But his fire watch is also the journey of the human soul. By first descending into the monastery’s lower depths and gradually ascending to its highest point in the abbey tower, he replicates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery and the Divine Comedy, where the way down becomes, in the end, the way up.
Merton’s “Fire Watch” reflection is framed by biblical images. It begins with Isaiah’s tower watchman keeping vigil through the long night, alert for a word of revelation. And it concludes with a divine word of comfort to Jonas, better known as Jonah, whose descent into the belly of the fish foreshadowed Christ’s death and resurrection.
“The sign of Jonas”––Merton’s term for the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising––is “burned into the roots of our being,” he said. And he described his own life’s pilgrimage as “traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[xiv]
For the receptive soul, Vigils is the hour when we listen to the voice of silence, and rest in the grace of unknowing. In “Fire Watch,” Merton sums up prayer in the dark in four lines:
While I am asking questions which You do not answer, You ask me a question which is so simple that I cannot answer. I do not even understand the question. This night, and every night, it is the same question.[xv]
[i] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 11.
[iii] The Christmas midnight mass and the Easter Vigil both incorporate the Vigils aura of nocturnal mystery when they take the assembly deep into the night. But many churches sacrifice this dimension when they choose the convenience of starting so early that they end well before midnight.
[iv] Meister Eckhart, cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 50. Yates’ book contains prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. The Eckhart quote appears at Midnight.
[vi] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 145.
[vii] Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” epilogue to The Sign of Jonas (1953), cited in Lawrence S. Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master—The Essential Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 107.
Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), National Gallery, London. (Creative Commons license)
A few years ago, while visiting London, I wanted to connect with a friend who lives at the outskirts of the city. Neil, who is an artist as well as a priest[i], told me to meet him at Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery. I arrived first, and stood transfixed before that marvelous 15thcentury painting. John the Baptist pours water over Jesus as the Holy Dove hovers just overhead. They stand at the edge of the river, in the shade of a great tree. The formality of the figures and the almost eternal sense of stillness induced a responding quietude in me. When I felt a hand on my shoulder, I knew it was Neil, but I did not look away from the painting. “Remember your baptism,” he whispered, and with a small vial of water drawn from his parish font, he poured a few drops onto my head.
It was a whimsical yet powerful way of connecting my own baptism with the baptism of Christ, making them both present in a single moment, inviting me to receive their multiple meanings into my heart and soul. When the Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, I will be thinking of that moment, and that painting.
Piero’s baptismal scene is untroubled by modern oppositions between empirical and spiritual. Its visible world is charged with something more than the eye can see. Or rather, what the eye sees participates in a reality the senses cannot directly grasp.
The Renaissance embrace of the empirical is clear. The sky is blue, not the gold of eternity. The natural world is prominent in the trees and landscape. The human bodies, while in the stylized poses of dancers, are not abstractions. They have weight and substance.
Yet we also see a world governed by invisible meanings: the dove, while rhyming perfectly with the hovering clouds, is the Holy Spirit; the trio on the left is angelic; the principal gestures are sacramental signs of inward grace; and the strong heavenward reach of the picture’s verticals balances harmoniously with its earthly horizontals. Strangely, there are no shadows, as if light is not cast from a distant, separate source, but inheres equally in everything: a sure sign of divine presence.
The more you look, the more you see. The face of the Baptist, who must now “decrease” with the coming of Christ (John 3:30), is only seen in profile, while the full face of Jesus confronts us directly, like an icon. But his eyes do not look outward to fix us with an iconic gaze; their attention is wholly interior. The bent figure on the right could be a realistic touch, another candidate preparing for baptism, but his faceless anonymity suggests a more symbolic meaning. The garment that hides his individuality indicates an identity in transition: either he is shedding the old self which is left behind in the sacrament of new birth, or he is putting on New Being as in the Pauline image from Galations 3:26: “All you who have been baptized have been clothed with Christ.”
The great tree, apparently an Italian walnut, is clearly more than an object of botanical interest. Everything about it suggests the Tree of Life, a mythic image prominent in the first and last chapters of the Bible. Rooted deeply in the earth, it reaches into the heavens, beyond the frame of the painting, where human sight cannot follow. Like the Christ whose erect body it exactly parallels (even its bark shares the identical color and smoothness of Christ’s skin), the Tree unites the dualities of earth and heaven, integrating them into a harmonious whole.
Perhaps the most uncanny element in Piero’s painting is the Jordan River. As the biblical boundary between the wilderness wandering of the Exodus and the land of Promise on the other side, the Jordan became a traditional image of the passage not only between old and new, past and future, but between life and death. Many examples occur in the American spirituals and shape note songs I love to sing with my folkie friends.
I’ve almost gained my heavenly home of friends and kindred dear; I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.
These lines, from “Angel Band,” suggest a gentle crossing. But other songs, like “The Promised Land,” strike a note of anxiety and risk:
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye, To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. . . Though Jordan’s waves around me roll, fearless I’d launch away.
But in Piero’s depiction, the river is no formidable flood fraught with difficulty and danger, but a quiet, meandering channel, calm and smooth as a mirror. And it comes to an end at the place where Jesus stands. This could be a direct reference to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, which parted like the Red Sea to let God’s people cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17). Or it could be showing Christ to be the one who opens the way between the worlds of life and death, sin and salvation.
The sacrament of baptism employs the tension between water as an image of life (birth, growth, and the quenching of thirst) and an image of death (flood and drowning), expressing the inseparable connection between dying and rising in the Paschal Mystery. We die to self in order to live to God. But in the eternal stillness and calm of this painting, that tension is absent. The raging flood has been tamed into a tranquil pool. We have already crossed over into the peace of heaven.
Of course, it’s only a freeze frame. Soon history will resume and pick up speed. The river will start to rise and become once again tricky to cross. Jesus will begin to make his way through many dangers, toils and snares. So will we. But I am grateful to Piero for this moment of calm, a promising glimpse of something behind and beyond the raucous flow of time.
Harrowing of Hell, Barberini Exultet Scroll (Italy, c. 1087)
The original disciples were shocked into bliss by the Resurrection––
and they never recovered.
–– Dom Sebastian Moore O.S.B.
At the entrance to the Jerusalem’s Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a sign warning every visitor:
NO EXPLANATIONS INSIDE THE CHURCH
This was intended to discourage talkative tour guides from disturbing the church’s prayerful ambience with shouted lectures, but it has always struck me as very good advice for preachers on Easter Sunday. Confronted by a room full of people who spend most of their time in the secular social imaginary where the dead stay dead and God––if there is one––does not intervene in the natural order, preachers are tempted to mount a defense of the Resurrection within the plausibility structures of the modern mindset. In doing so, they not only tame a dangerous mystery into a manageable––and rather harmless––assumption, but they also waste a valuable opportunity to bring the assembly into confrontation with the transformative presence of the living Christ.
There is nothing wrong with addressing people’s doubts, or wondering what facts might lie behind the “painfully untidy stories”[i] of the Easter narratives. But that is work for another day. Easter Sunday is for proclamation, not explanation. It is a time to meet the One who changes everything.
The central question of Easter is not, “What happened to Jesus way back then?” but rather, “Where is Jesus now––for us?” Or even more strikingly, “When is Jesus? When is Jesus for us?”[ii] So Easter becomes not a matter of our questioning the Resurrection, but of allowing the Resurrection to question us. Who are we now, and what must we become, in the light of the risen Christ?
If I were preaching on Easter Sunday, I wouldn’t want to convince so much as to invite–– to invite the mixed crowd of believers, seekers and doubters to embrace the Easter experience and consent to its transformative effects. In order to connect the risenness of Jesus with the risenness of us and all creation, I would pursue two fundamental themes: Easter is now! And, Resurrection has consequences!
Easter is now!
Since it only occurs once a year, Easter Sunday is sometimes mistaken for a commemorative anniversary of a past event. In fact, the earliest churches treated the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection as the timeless (or time-full) subject of every eucharistic liturgy. The establishment of an annual observance of “Easter Day” was a later development.
The Resurrection, although breaking into history on a specific temporal occasion, is not the property of the past. As God’s future showing itself in our present, it belongs to all times and seasons. Jesus is alive, still showing up as a transfiguring presence in a world fraught with absences. Jesus is not over, and his story is not over. It will only be completed in the divinization of the cosmos, when God is in all and all are in God.
Easter isn’t something we remember. It’s something we live and breathe.
Resurrection has consequences
The Resurrection is more than an idea we talk about or believe propositionally. It’s something we become, something we “prove” in the living of our stories. Rowan Williams describes it this way:
“[T]he believer’s life is a testimony to the risen-ness of Jesus: he or she demonstrates that Jesus is not dead by living a life in which Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement––a pattern, a dance, intelligible as a pattern only when its pivot and heart become manifest. The believer shows Jesus as the center of his or her life.”[iii]
In the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, Jesus is never by himself. He is always depicted taking the dead by the hand and pulling them out of their own tombs. Christ’s hand snatching us from death is a vivid image (as in the Exultet scroll above), and George Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet-priest, employs it artfully in ‘Easter’:
Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise
With him mayst rise . . .
But the things that are killing us exert a powerful gravity. We sag under the weight of our despair, we resist the hand that pulls us upward. Nevertheless, Christ persists. “Arise, sad heart,” says Herbert in ‘The Dawning’:
if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee.
Do not by hanging down break from Christ’s hand. Christ came to save us from our least selves. That’s the gift––and the challenge––of the Resurrection, and it applies to our common life as well as to our private selves. The first disciples, so scattered and shamed by the events of the Passion, made this perfectly clear when their broken and bewildered community was restored to life. And so it is for all of us who follow.
Resurrection is about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships: relationships between God and humanity, between human persons and, ultimately, among all the elements of creation. An Orthodox theologian puts the case in the widest possible terms: “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.”[iv]
That’s what I would preach on Sunday. Of course we don’t control what people take away from the Easter celebration. But we can hope that the faithful will be inspired and empowered, and that “outsiders” may be intrigued–– and even fed–– by spending time with a resurrection community alive with the Spirit.
The primary task of preachers and evangelists on Easter Sunday is not to recite or argue the evidence for the Resurrection, but to help their communities become that evidence. May the whole world one day see and know a church which has been shocked into bliss––and has never recovered!
Holy Week posts
Dear reader, as we enter the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Holy Week, I pray that your own experience of dying and rising, whether ritually embodied in the traditional rites or undergone in the particularity of your own spiritual path, may bring you to the place of new life and true peace. Easter graces be upon you.
I have written a number of posts about aspects of Holy Week, and I link them below as seeds for your own reflection. As always, I am blessed by your reading.
Monday in Holy Week: for a liturgist, the next few days comprise the precious last bit of calm before hitting the rapids of the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.
For those who undertake this marathon ritual experience, it is the molten core of our worship life, a sacramental immersion into the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising with Christ. It is where we do our best theology and our most heartfelt common prayer. Richly layered, multi-sensory, dramatic and moving, the Triduum is a liturgy like no other.
I say “liturgy” singular, even though there are three distinctive rites between sundown Thursday and the late hours of Saturday night. It is one single liturgy with successive parts, like a three-act play or a symphony in three movements. At the end of the first two parts, there is no blessing or dismissal. The people simply exit in silence to rest up until the liturgy continues the next day.
Each of the parts has an integral relation to the other two. There is of course a narrative relationship: the three parts follow the sequence of Jesus’ last days. But there is also a theological relationship: each part finds its full meaning only in relation to the others. “No rising without dying” is the prime example of this interrelationship, but there are many others, such as the theme of community. The disciples gathered so memorably on Thursday evening, then scattered by Friday’s betrayals and denials, are themselves resurrected from the isolation of sin and shame by the Christ who returns as Forgiveness. We learn this all over again by being in the story.
These aren’t things we just hear about or think about. We enact them with our bodies and emotions. We taste the warm table fellowship of the Last Supper, and the bitter cup of Gethsemane. We ascend Golgotha’s hill to gaze Wondrous Love in the face and kiss the wood which proved the “tree of glory” for the “healing of the nations.” We wait out the long silence of Holy Saturday until the New Fire contradicts the darkness and the Easter Acclamation (“Christ is risen!”) ignites a miracle of collective joy that was barely conceivable the day before.
To treat the Triduum as a la carte, or to skip it altogether, would be to miss the richness of the interrelated whole. Imagine only seeing one act of Hamlet, or skipping the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. There are things we can only find out by entering into them fully. The journey is how we know.
This is, of course, the passionate liturgist talking. If I were a parish priest, I would acknowledge the many demands of my parishioner’s lives and the realities of a 24/7 secularized culture, where going to church three nights in a row is not just rare – it’s incomprehensible. And we don’t want to shame the faithful, or call them wrong because they only do Palm Sunday and Easter, bypassing the Triduum entirely. Lives get busy.
But still, every year, even the most indulgent and compassionate pastor continues to issue the invitation to exit ordinary time and habitual existence in order to “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God has] given us life and immortality,” because the Triduum is too good, too important, not to share. Something very specific to the process happens to those who make the journey. It’s like the Camino de Santiago in that respect. Even the most casual pilgrim is affected by the simple fact of going all the way from beginning to end, whatever their state of mind and heart when they first set out. The journey is how they know.
For me, a year without the Triduum experience is unimaginable. I have done it with the Orthodox in Jerusalem (no problem with attendance there!) and last year observed it with a small group of believers as we walked the Camino. But mostly I have done it as liturgical artist-in-residence at various parishes in California and Washington.
This year I’m collaborating with St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, where we will add some distinctive touches to the tradition. On Maundy Thursday, Sidney Carter’s “Bitter Was the Night” will be sung over a didgeridoo drone during the Stripping of the Altar. The sacred stories at the Easter Vigil will employ drama, film and soundscapes. God will be played by a 7-year-old girl in the Valley of Dry Bones. Music will mix medieval chant and Holy Week hymns with folk traditions and contemporary songwriters. You can read more about it here.
In the apocryphal Acts of John, Jesus leads his disciples in a dance. Some are resistant, but he tells them, “Those who do not dance do not know what happens.” By the time we reach the Vigil finale Saturday night, dancing around the altar to “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” we will all know what happens.