Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ

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.

 

[i]The Rev. Neil Lambert is the vicar of St. Mary’s, Ash Vale, a 40-minute train ride from Waterloo Station. You can read more about him in my post, “Dreaming the Church that wants to be.”

What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?

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
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise
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!

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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.

The Journey is How We Know (The Triduum)

Temporary Resurrection Zones (Maundy Thursday)

We Are Not Alone (Good Friday)

Good Friday

My Body Shall Rest in Hope – A Holy Saturday Reflection

Just a Dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Are We Too Late for the Resurrection?

 

[i] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1982 & 2002), 100.

[ii] Gareth Jones, “The Resurrection in Contemporary Systematic Theology,” in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1996), 42.

[iii] Williams, 55-56.

[iv] Patriarch Athenagoras, q. in Michel Quenot, Resurrection and the Icon, trans. Michael Breck (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 232.

The journey is how we know

The Paschal Moon will be full on Holy Saturday.

The Paschal Moon will be full on Holy Saturday.

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.