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The War Prayer

by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

So this month’s Synchroblog is an invitation to lighten up. Our faith blogs tend to become so very serious as we discuss theology and life and church and wounds and wonder. But even with all of our ponderings, we know a good belly laugh can minister to us in the deep places far more effectively than anything else at times. It seems to short-circuit our tensions and fears. Anne Lamott says that laughter is carbonated holiness. It knits our souls back together.

A consistent source of laughter for me is my dog. She’s silly, as dogs tend to be. She’s over enthusiastic about pretty much everything. She’s free of shame and conceit – she doesn’t care what she looks like. She only knows what makes her happy. Treats make her happy. Running makes her happy. People make her happy. Toys make her happy. Her favorite bed makes her happy. Her food makes her happy. Our food makes her happy. The cats’ food makes her happy. Learning to master the stairs (a big deal for track-raised greyhounds) makes her happy. Hearing her leash jingle makes her happy. The dog park makes her happy. Someone she hasn’t seen in five minutes makes her happy. You get my drift. She shows her happiness by turning in circles. Zoe’s life is made of circles.

She runs and bounces and races and gets completely distracted (squirrel!) and then pants with her long tongue lolling about, flapping like a wet sheet in the breeze. With ears pinned back behind her head, a panting greyhound looks to be all mouth, like a Pacman with legs. There’s times when she’s had me laughing for 10 minutes straight.

But laughter isn’t just about hilarity, though I certainly enjoy that. Sometimes it’s a lightness of heart that knows that no matter what, all shall be well. It’s a deep sense of rightness and joy that causes us, like Gandalf at the end of the great war in Lord of the Rings, to throw our heads back and laugh as if we’ve seen the end of all things, and we know it’s good. My goofy dog also brings about that sort of laughter. She’s taught me that dog walking is a spiritual practice. I recently posted these observations from a morning walk with Zoe:

1. The Colorado sky is bluer than ever, if that’s possible.

2. It smells like Spring.

3. Birds are really noisy but somehow their voices enhance solitude and meditation, unlike human noise.

4. Dogs are good mentors in mindfulness. They’re always in the moment.

5. Robins are magnificent.

Sometimes life isn’t very funny. But I can’t return from a walk with this simple, happy creature without that that thought in my mind: All shall be well. That makes me laugh out loud. My neighbors probably think I am just laughing at my silly, circling dog. But I also come back with the suspicion that the creator God who, in all his Holy, Glorious, Righteous, Immutable, Ineffable Seriousness created my circle dog, is in truth, hysterically funny. GK Chesterton suspected as much about Jesus of whom he writes: “There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

God laughs, because s/he does know the end of all things. Sometimes we can hear the echoes if we are mindful enough. I think dogs hear them all the time.

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Here’s an old post of a book review I did on a book called “Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor”. It’s received a huge amount of hits. I think that might be because there’s something very hopeful about the laughter of God. Click: Jesus Laughed

This month’s Synchroblog explores the question: What if Jesus never rose from the dead? If there were no resurrection, would there still be a religion known as Christianity?

My first thought is, without the resurrection I don’t think Christianity would have survived. After all, after the crushing blow of Jesus’ death, there had to be something big that happened to have caused those first century Christians to risk their lives and endure 300 years of intense persecution and torment at the hands of Rome. Something happened that opened up a whole new way of seeing life, hope and the Kingdom of God. And as a result, the Church has survived for 2000 tumultuous years.

However, it seems it’s been really hard to recapture the early passion of the church. I sat with several friends this week for whom the Easter season felt flat, even sad. “Why bother?” they asked. There’s tons of historical and psychological explanations to explore, but in a nutshell what I see in our present day is major memory loss on the part of the church.

The liberal theology that has flourished since the 18th century de-emphasizes the supernatural events of Christ’s life such as the virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection in favor of an earthy, incarnational faith that concentrated on feeding the poor, caring for the sick and imprisoned, and outcast, and treating the least of these as Christ Himself. This became known as the social gospel, a Christianity to make a difference in the world. To be fair, not all denied basic orthodoxy as truth, but there was and is a definite concentration of the actions of Jesus and his command that his followers do the same. It’s cool stuff really, however, there is a major problem. This liberal reductionist theology has not produced on its promises: that humanity alone can change this world for the better. It cannot change the human heart. In its blindest moments, it allows evil to remain unchecked.

Conservatives on the other hand, have inexplicably thrown out the social gospel in their fervor to preserve the basic tenets of orthodoxy (virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection). On this end, the faith has become dangerously more about having an accurate Christology than about Christ. The actions and life and teachings of Jesus are seen primarily as a means to the Cross and personal eternal salvation, over against having a significant purpose of their own. The emphasis then has shifted from caring for the world to personal and social morality. This has overshadowed the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in and among us, a subject about which Jesus spoke frequently. Though a creedal understanding of events like the resurrection is a necessity (and I’m grateful for the preservation), the words of Peter Rollins come to mind: “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.”

The problem with both “ends” is that extreme wickedness remains throughout our human societies. The social gospel is not able to diminish it in this hurting world, and the emphasis on eternal salvation and creeds has not diminished it in the hearts those of us who call ourselves “saved”. Both poles seem to act as though the resurrection never happened (except as an assurance for heaven perhaps) and it’s not working out so well. True transformation does not seem to happen much when we live in extremes.

If resurrection is to be believed, it must be about much, much more than doing good stuff or believing the right stuff, no matter how sincerely these things are done. The resurrection happened within this world, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it then, that it has a whole lot to do with this world. It is not merely a hope that lies in the future outside of this world but a renewal right here, right now within it.

NT Wright says,

[The resurrection is] the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new one. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a NEW CREATION. (emphasis mine)

To paraphrase Wright, there is a new world being reborn in Jesus, and in this world Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. God’s saving rule is breaking in. As my pastor often says, Jesus didn’t come to make us good, He came to make us new. There’s something beautiful and powerful and real enough to change the intractable narcissism of our hearts. And, it’s not just about us, it is about the renewal and healing of everything. Old things have passed away, the new has come.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of striving. We’ve all blown it in some way. We’ve all decided that we’re right and our way of doing religion is better than that of “them over there”. And I’m not going to give a “10 steps to the Resurrection Life” schpiel because I don’t have one. I hope that is a relief. I think the way is simply like that of the early church: Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth.

Richard Rohr says,

Christ Crucified is all of the hidden, private, tragic pain of history made public and given over to God. Christ Resurrected is all of that private, ungrieved, unnoted suffering received, loved, and transformed by an All-Caring God. How else could we believe in God at all? How else could we have any kind of cosmic hope? How else would we not die of sadness for what humanity has done to itself and to one another? Jesus is the blueprint, the plan, the pattern revealed in one body and moment of history to reveal the meaning of all of history and each of our lives. The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God. The resurrection is the banner of what God does to us in return. Easter is the announcement of God’s perfect and final victory.

He is God’s life-affirming yes to the universe. And yes, Resurrection says, this is not the end.

Check out our other Synchrobloggers:

Jesus came, did you get what you expected?

I pray that the answer is no.

I realize how strange that sounds. When I wished my friends and family Merry Christmas, I truly meant it. I wished for each one a season of peace and enjoyment and that each would experience life-altering moments of kindness and love. I wished everyone could be a part of a gathering in which they felt a sense of belonging. I hoped that each of us could offer that to others as well, especially those with no place to go. I wished that everyone would feel noticed and known through the gift giving, and that each one would feel as though they matter.

I confess I love the beauty and ribbons and lights and music and anticipation of it all. It’s all too easy to get caught up into the commercialism and sentimentality that has taken over the holiday season and that causes so many of us to rack up big bills and stress in order to make it all happen. Let’s be honest, that stuff is just as alive in the Christian world as it is in the secular. But sentimentality is a cheapened version of true celebration. It tells a lie that what our hearts most desire can truly be found here, through our money and our parties.

Therefore, even though I truly wished you all Merry Christmas, I hope you were blessed enough to leave the holiday unsatisfied. I hope you all enjoyed a lovely holiday as did my family and I, and, I pray that none of us would be satisfied with so little ever again.

My prayer is that the Christian church would have to courage to begin to grow up. May we become less afraid of the mystery, the great paradox of our Christian lives which is the reality of the already/not yet. Christ has come and shown us the way of His Kingdom. Alleluia. However, Christian celebration on this side of heaven must always carry with it a morsel of grief. That is why three of our Advent candles are purple, the color of penitence and suffering. We must outgrow the Jesus who, as my pastor says, is too often viewed as our “bearded girlfriend who wants to be our lifecoach.” We must outgrow our “religious narcissism”. May we dare to follow God to places far outside of ourselves.

Those who walk in the footsteps of Emmanuel may not forget that the world aches in pain, oppression and need. We ache because even though we enjoyed a feast day with all the trimmings, many of our children in West Africa passed away from hunger. We are troubled because though we are free, too many of us are still in chains through sex trafficking, dictatorships or the selfishness of others. We ache because we do not yet know how to die enough to our own fears and greed to allow Kingdom to be birthed fully alive and full term everywhere.

If we lose our sense of ache, of longing for something better, we lose who we truly are. We are made for something, Someone, far better than what the pretty, sentimental holidays can ever provide. And, we are meant to begin to realize that truth in context of community. Theologian Miroslav Volf says that when we “receive” Christ, we receive all who come with Him. We cannot fully know and bring Kingdom without those whom we have left behind.

May the awe that we feel at the coming of God Incarnate jar our hearts awake to this exquisite longing. May this Holy Discontent drive us to the Story to live as deeply liturgical people, people who live with rejoicing and ache, all while figuring out a bit more of what it might mean to love God and love others. And if you have been fully satisfied and your life is near perfect, may you be blessed enough for God to come in and mess it up enough so that you are not left behind in slumber. Amen.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost, to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
(Quaker Blessing)

Enjoy the Synchrobloggers:

Glenn Hager – Underwear For Christmas

Jeremy Myers – The Unexpected Gift From Jesus

Tammy Carter  - Unstuck

Jeff Goins - The Day After Christmas: A Lament

Wendy McCaig – Unwanted Gifts: You Can Run But You Can Not Hide

Christine Sine – The Wait Is Over – What Did I Get?

Maria Kettleson Anderson – Following The Baby We Just Celebrated 

Leah – Still Waiting For Redemption

Kathy Escobar – Pain Relief Not Pain Removal

Our world is unraveling. We are seeing the deterioration of civil society in many ways. This holiday week alone has been an embarrassment of aggressive consumerism with shoppers resorting to pepper spray and robbing each other at gunpoint. Black Friday is extending back into Thursday, threatening to diminish the one day we have set aside to pause our frantic lives and give thanks that some of us actually have money to spend. And that’s just the news on the small scale.

I just had a long conversation with a friend over the meaning of Christmas. It began around her assertion that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus. When you look at Walmart at midnight on Thanksgiving, you can see that that has become very true. But the conversation was more about how many choose to celebrate Christmas either in a secular fashion or with more ancient ties to the pagan rituals that were the inspiration for the choice of December for this observance. I agreed, the holiday was birthed from engagement with other traditions and has taken on many more dimensions, much of which have nothing to do with the remembering of Jesus and the Christian story. I also agreed with her that people should be allowed to celebrate how they wish without harassment. In her insistence that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus, I assume she wanted to show support for the millions who celebrate Christmas in various ways but have no Christian affiliation.

Even so, it’s important to remember that the shaping of the Christmas celebration (long before secular commercialization) was intentional and beautiful. Early Christians brought their story to the celebrations that they had already been observing such as pagan solstice rituals, or more likely, the Roman solar celebration. Since the beginning of time people had observed that light returns to the world as the world revolves around the sun, renewing and enlivening as it comes. The Christian story, the gospel story, is about the Light coming into the world, bringing life and healing to hurting souls. What was already observed and celebrated in rhythm with creation was then seen to hold a deeper meaning in the minds of these early Christians. As a result, the season of waiting (Advent) and the celebration of the Incarnation of God, Emmanuel, was born. Eventually, the season became known as the Feast of the Nativity or Christ’s Mass. So on the level of tradition and history, the evolution of Christmas as a holiday (holy day) is indeed about Jesus. The whole point of the discussion was that there’s no need to diminish Christian tradition to make room for other traditions, just as there’s no need to diminish other traditions to make space for the Christian.

But that discussion isn’t the true issue. I understand that there is a lot of anger towards Christians who have been offering judgment instead of the Good News. I understand that people would then choose to diminish the Christian Story as a result. That’s what people do. That’s why the world is hurting. We all diminish and deny the traditions, beliefs, needs and feelings of the other in order to make space for ourselves. However, in doing so, any empathy for the other is also lost. Lack of empathy for the other is the human heart in its most desolate state. The particular case above was about diminishing Christianity. But the way of thinking that essentially diminishes or eliminates the other, any other, has become the norm worldwide as each of our hearts shrink and pull back into self-protective bunkers. This is what our broken and hard-hearted system of justice does.

So, we live in a world in which empathy is a rare gem. More than ever, this has become a world of every man or woman for themselves, whether it be about grabbing the last waffle maker at Walmart or blocking job creating bills because you don’t like the politics of the party in power, or insisting that every conservative Christian is hate-filled and every liberal one is immoral, or that every Muslim is a terrorist. We no longer seek to listen, to know, to honor and respect each other. We no longer see the Image in one another. The idea of being our brothers’ keeper has become laughable, even amongst Jesus followers. We cannot compromise and work together because whatever the other represents is simply too offensive, too threatening, too inconvenient, too irrelevant to our personal lives. In this sense, we indeed have truly lost Jesus.

We do not need to create a “let’s take Christmas back” mentality. That is not what this post is about and it’s only another way to diminish those with whom we disagree. We do acknowledge that millions of people who are not Christians celebrate “Christmas” in various ways around the world and can remain unthreatened by that. However, the most important thing we can do is to reflect to the world the Light that has come to us. The incarnation of God-as-human is an act of ultimate empathy. God, who is Wholly Other became the other in order to love fully and to reconcile, to heal, to save. This is what love does! Love enters the story of the other. This world that has become more cold and hard and cynical than ever is desperate for a love that enters in.

Remember the Story. May we remember and act accordingly and thus bring true empathy back into the world, whether it’s at Walmart or in congress or towards Wall Street protestors or in trying to be politically correct (or not).  The world says, “Your needs and pain don’t matter to me” as it steps on the heads of the weaker brother to move upward towards bigger and better. Jesus calls us back down to our senses, back down to being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, back down to a life of love. And when we listen to his Story, we find that he has shown us how.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. John 1:9 RSV

Definitions of Empathy:

1. The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it (perhaps incarnates it? – my addition)

2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

More Synchroblogs posts will be added as they come in:

ron cole at the weary pilgrim –  advent: reimagining everything

liz dyer at grace rules –  expect the unexpected

sarah styles bessey at emerging mummy –  in which i’m expecting something from advent

miz melly at perchance to dream –  parousia

kathy escobar at the carnival in my head –  present, humble, vulnerable

David Perry at Visual Theology –  Advent As A Mirror of Possibility

Christine Sine at Godspace –  Jesus Is Coming What Do We Expect?

Liz VerHage –  Living Theology

Glenn Hager –  Antithetical Advent

Sally Coleman at Sally’s Journey –  Come Spirit of Advent

Jeremy Myers at Till He Comes –  Jesus Is Returning Today

Tammy Carter-  His Gift: The Way of Escape

Wendy McCaig-  Re-expecting a baby

Jon Reid-  Undiscovered Advent: The Second Coming of Christ

This is part two of my St. John’s Bible post. If you’d like to read about its history and to see some of the other illuminations, the first post is here. There are 160 illuminations and there were 17 of them on tour at the Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs. We attended a wonderful lecture by Sr. Irene, a member of the creative Committee on Illuminations and Text that brought this work to life. I share some of her insights and a few of my own ponderings as well.

 

The 10 Commandments- Exodus 20

This illumination contains lots of words. The 10 commandments were written on stone by the finger of God and it was the first time the revelation of God was given in written form. God says, your carved gods are not ok but here I am, revealed in the written word. Most people were illiterate so this brought a significant shift in the history of writing.

It was the most significant religious event in history up to that point. It is yet another re-creation story. Into an anarchic world of oppression and cruelty, God bursts in to bring order into the chaos once again.

The images recall the Israelites’ story: the burning bush, the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, and their exodus through the Red Sea. There are 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

The bottom of picture reflects the sense of chaos that is always pressing in around us but God there too. In its midst you can just make out the words “I am the Lord your God”.

 

The Nativity Story – Luke 2

This illumination is from the nativity passage in Luke. Once again, God moves into chaos and brings new life. You may notice that the one person not clearly present here is the infant Jesus. Sr. Irene told us that the artist offered several trial sketches of the baby, but none felt right. Finally, he decided not to portray the baby at all, but instead bathed him in descending light in order to to bring to mind the incarnation. Heaven came down to earth.

The ox is from a Neolithic cave painting in France and is a nod to early Christian writers who often used an ox as a symbol for Luke. The ram is a foreshadowing of sacrifice. The shepherds are mostly women and children, which was apparently the norm in that day. My favorite part of the nativity story has always been the presence of these humble (and often despised) people, being amongst the first along with the strange Magi to see Christ in this world.

 

In this illumination of the raising of Lazarus we are given a new perspective. We are not outside the tomb weeping and waiting. We are inside the tomb awakening to the tunnel of white light beaming from the outside. At its center is Jesus. Do you choose life or do you choose to stay dead?

 

John 1

The beautiful words of John 1 recall the Creation story. In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Here we see the figure of Jesus stepping out of eternity into time. The figure seems unfinished, because incarnation is ongoing as Christ is being formed in each one of us. We are his incarnation now. Transformation, beauty, order, life is called out of chaos (both in and outside of us) once again.

The images of the universe surrounding him were taken by the Hubble telescope.

 

The Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1.

The Spirit once again is hovering over the waters. The heavens are opened and humanity is created anew. There is a hint of the birth of the Church, seen in a gold stamp in the background. In the foreground John the Baptist is a large figure, moving away. Jesus is golden and small in the background, bringing to mind the verse, “I must decrease so he may increase.” I don’t know if this was intended here but in iconography, the true perspective is always from heaven’s point of view. So the larger, closer figures as seen through our perspective are actually lesser than the ones that are further away. Jesus then, is the Center of the Story. “This is My Son, with whom I am pleased.”

The book of Mark is fast paced. After the baptism Jesus is immediately sent out into the desert to be tempted. We see that demons are already present to tempt him. The angels are ready and waiting to minister to him.

 

An illumination from the book of Acts. You will be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth… How far is the end of the earth? Here, it goes out into the universe. We see it is filled with crosses, literally crammed with heaven, and God’s presence fills it all. All things will be made new.

These are but a few of my favorites and this Bible is not even fully finished! There are far too many to write about here and you simply must see them for yourself and bring your own eyes to these pages. I’d love to hear about it when you do.

In the mean time, here is the link so you can page through it for yourself.

http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/see/explore.htm

This weekend my husband and I were fortunate enough to see an exhibit of the St. John’s Bible at the Benet Hill Monastery down in Colorado Springs. This Bible is the first handwritten and hand painted work commissioned by the Benedictines in 500 years. It is a work of theology and a work of art.

All of the text is done in beautiful calligraphy, with a script designed just for this project. There are 160 works of art designed in prayerful response to scripture passages. Fr. Michael Patella, OSB, 
(Chair of the SJB Committee on Illumination and Text) says, “The illuminations are not illustrations. They are spiritual meditations on a text. It is a very Benedictine approach to Scriptures.” Simply put, they are stunning. They are thresholds. If you love art and if you love the scriptures, these illuminations will feed your soul.

This experience does what a reading of the Bible is meant to do. We were stirred up into awe, wonder, worship, and surprise. Our souls quickened in delight. We were challenged and even offended as our small view of God and large view of ego was exposed. We rediscovered that our Bible is indeed a living text. Kathleen Norris has noted, “Most people don’t know what is in the Bible and when they find out, they become unglued.” We are never left unchanged. This encounter with the scriptures wooed us to the larger story that encompasses everything and everyone.

The monks who commissioned this Bible wanted it to reflect the Benedictine values of hospitality, justice and love. They hope it will enhance our engagement with the biblical text and with the arts. The illuminations are designed to reflect God’s all-embracing presence and His unending welcome that is offered to the whole world. They emphasize women, neglected peoples, and the poor. At the heart of it all is God’s global message of hope for all time, for all peoples, for all generations, and over all history.

Aram remarked that it’s so rare to see anyone have a long vision for a project such as this anymore. This Bible began about 12 years ago and will be completed sometime in 2011. In contrast, our culture demands immediate answers and immediate results. We don’t know how to wait. We dismiss the value of memory and time. Cathedrals used to take generations to build. Talk about job security and economic stability! We have forgotten how to work for something greater than ourselves to benefit generations that we may never meet this side of heaven. Monastics do everything prayerfully and slowly. I am grateful to them for this.

Below, I share some of what we learned from the lecture that we attended at the monastery. It was taught by Sr. Irene, a kick-ass nun and theologian from the Committee on Illustration and Text for St. John’s Bible. The images that I have posted here are obviously not as clear as they are up close and in person but I hope they speak to you. The Benedictines say, “Listen with the ear of your heart.” As we learned the practice of Visio Divina they added, “See with the eyes of your heart, too.”  And Sr. Irene gave us much freedom in our gazing by saying, “If you see it, it’s in there.”

Just FYI: Gold always represents God.

Creation (Genesis 1)
The seven panels represent the seven days of creation, of course. The panels are rough and unfinished on the edges, reminding us that creation is still happening. It’s a work in progress, and so are we. We are also reminded that God always brings order, beauty and life out of chaos. Day 3, when vegetation and plant life come into being, there is a satellite image of the Ganges River Delta. On day 5 when the waters are called to team with life, the artists included ancient fish fossils. On day six, the drawings of people are from aboriginal cave drawings from Africa and Australia. Gold (representing God) is present throughout of course, increasing to Day 7. Creation and re-creation is an overarching theme throughout the whole Bible.

The Genealogy of Jesus (from the Gospel of Matthew)
The Menorah is designed to recall the panels of the days of Creation as well as the tree of life. The Menorah is a symbol of Judaism, the people from whom Jesus was born. There are patterns of DNA molecules throughout, reminding us of His humanity. The Menorah was also the design of the lamp that lit the temple as described in Zechariah. Jesus is the Light.

The gold designs at the top of the piece are from the Koran. The circle (mandala) underneath is an Asian design. Within the menorah itself are all the names of the ancestors of Jesus. They included the names of all the women in His ancestry, not just the ones included in Matthew. The name of Hagar, second wife of Abraham and mother of Ishmael, is written in English, Hebrew and Arabic, for she is the mother of the Arab peoples. Christ is for us all.

The five “books” of the Psalms (divided up by some scribe way back when) each have a frontispiece that looks like a Torah scroll. They also look like painted Japanese screens. (There was an Asian art expert on the committee.) There are gold squares and designs all over, reminding us that Christ is present throughout. Gregorian chant notes were also represented by squares, so they reflect the heritage of the church age as well.

What is especially intriguing are the small squiggles throughout the scroll. These are actual digital voice prints of the Monks of St. John’s Abbey singing the Psalms. There also are voice prints of the monks singing a Native American song, and sacred songs from Hindu, Jewish, Taoist, Greek, and Buddhist traditions and probably some more that I am forgetting. It is indeed a living text. It is the tradition of Benedictine hospitality to honor all those who pray.

Luke’s “Anthology”

This piece reflects many parables that are unique to Luke. The first one is the woman who lost a valuable coin and looks everywhere for it. When she finds it, she throws a party. There are hints of angels in that panel, ready to rejoice with her. Sr. Irene reminded us that a larger theme of the book of Luke is the fact that Jesus ate with the wrong people. Often in His stories he says in effect, “You think I eat with the wrong people? My Father throws parties for them!”

Another panel shows the story of the prodigal son. The familiar characters are there – the returning son, the older brother, the running father, the pigs. Sr. Irene remarked that the mother seems to be missing from this story. But she relates a favorite tale which says that the mother was absent because she was busy fattening the calf for the party to come, polishing the ring and then is looking out and about for her son. The mother remarks, “And his father thinks this just happened!”

What is particularly moving is that all the stories are in diagonal panels of gold, leading upward to Jesus. These are stories about restoration and forgiveness. In the panel with the prodigal are the New York City World Trade Center Twin Towers, also in gold. This panel was being painted during the fall of 2001 after the 9-11 tragedies. They were included to offer the message that forgiveness is the way to move forward. Indeed, the very last panel which portrays Mary and Martha reveals the words “Only one thing is necessary” as all move towards Jesus. Forgiveness.

The Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) “I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live.”
This is a particularly gripping work. The artists did not want to go towards “The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone” or “dem bones” types of imagery. The skulls and bones are reminiscent of mass graves. There are images that evoke the picture of the heap of eyeglasses seen at the Holocaust Museum. There is a watchtower. There are also junk and old cars, depicting throw-away people, used and abused by others. The oil from the old cars reveals a rainbow with flecks of gold. Even here, God is present. There are rainbows of promise overhead, filled with colors, filled with God. I ask you, can these bones live?

I will post part two later this week. Go here to page through this Bible yourself! http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/see/explore.htm

“The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.” ~Donald Jackson, Artistic Director, St, John’s Bible

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