Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Christ is Risen...trampling down death by death..."

In the Western part of the world the Easter image we're most accustomed to is that of Jesus, wrapped in a white cloth with banner in hand, exiting, perhaps even flying out of  the cave-tomb. There might be Roman soldiers  fallen down, an angel or two and the sun at dawn.. The scene can evoke comfort and joy.

But the images (icons) found in Eastern Christianity tell us more, especially the more as it impacts upon the world and our personal lives.  Eastern Christian art speaks to us through the use of symbol. It never attempts to capture a moment the way a camera would have, were cameras available centuries ago. Icons set out to tell us about the eternal meaning of the events depicted. The icon writer (painter) doesn't employ the rules of perspective as we understand them because he/she isn't depicting events simply in earth-time. The iconographer knows that eternal events are being celebrated in the creation of an authentic icon.

The Easter icon depicts the mysterious phrase spoken of Jesus in the Apostles' Creed: "He descended to the dead." Or the word might be Hades - the place of the dead. Speculation and debate about the geography of Hades or the place of the dead might be missing the point. More importantly we might simply let the icon reveal its message to us.

So much of this icon is a black hole. An abyss; a chasm.  It is the underworlds we read about and those we know nothing about, as they are either safely secreted or perhaps we have chosen to live in ignorance of them. The black-chasm is the world's sealed archives, locked drawers and files that conceal terrible secrets. The black-chasm symbolizes where death squads plot and exploitive corporate deals are signed, where civilian deaths are written off as collateral damage, where little girls are aborted just for being little girls, where torture, slavery and execution take place, where crimes and sins are concealed or minimized. But the chasm is within each of us too: the destructive lie or whisper, the concealed theft, the consumerism that's spoiling our paradise,the cold heart, the blind eye, the deaf ear I turn.

But Jesus-God has not been frightened away by the darkness that seeks to swallow us up. Look! He rushes, he runs into the chasm, perhaps even kicking down the doors which barricaded the chasm, and with such intensity that all of the securing hardware, the nuts and bolts, the screws, locks and keys are flying uselessly through the scene. Jesus descends into the place of deep, human hopelessness and death - a veritable land of death - and with an outstretched arm He singles out and approaches Adam and Eve, at the head of all of humanity, delicately lifting them out of their stone-cold tombs, to their feet and to a new life. The assembly of royals on the left seem to be particularly animated and glad. Maybe that's because those in power often have more to be forgiven than ordinary folks.

Jesus is the Light-Bearer! Indeed, he seems to stand encapsulated in light. His radiation illumines the deepest places of destruction to which humans can descend. Even the ground or floor of the underworld sparkles! Aware or unaware, I stand on that illumined ground.

So here's an Easter Meditation or prayer idea. It's very hard, perhaps not even possible, for Westerners to blank their minds. I might try instead to lock my mind, fixing it on a single point.

  • My feet on the floor, I come to an inner quiet-place with distractions minimized.
  • I study the icon, looking at it long enough to have become familiar with it.
  • At some point I may close my eyes, the icon imprinted inside now.
  • I imagine taking up my place in the group to the right.
  • I feel and identify the darkness surrounding me.
  • In humility I understand that I'm in the mix of humanity represented.
  • Perhaps I am able to identify others with me from the past or the present.
  • I am perhaps especially aware of someone who needs forgiveness.
  • I witness Christ's breakthrough and sense the light.
  • Christ has come to lift me up; to escort me.
  • My heart says of you, "Seek His face!" Your face, O Lord, I shall seek. Psalm 27:8-9
  • Perhaps Jesus speaks a Resurrection-word to me.
  • I rest in the silence of this Easter moment.
  • I respond gratefully; a word that grows out of silence.

Christ is Risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death, 
and upon those in the tomb bestowing life!

Eastern Christian Resurrection Hymn

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"The Children of the Hebrews..."

THE ACCOUNT OF JESUS' entry into Jerusalem before His Passion is told in each of the four gospels. The details differ, but this shouldn't disturb us as the gospel writers aren't trying to give us newspaper reports. Rather, they are sharing the underneath message: who Jesus is; what Jesus is doing.

There are long debates online as to whether Jesus rode one or two donkeys. It's hard to see how this kind of complicated and tedious argument helps us to know Jesus better. In the early 1970's Leonard Bernstein composed The Mass. After the "Kyrie" a single voice, accompanied by guitar is heard:

Sing God a simple song
Lauda, laude
Make it up as you go along
Lauda, laude
Sing like you like to Sing
God loves all simple things
And love is the simplest of all."

It is foretold in the Book of the Prophet Zechariah (9:9) that Zion's future king would ride upon the little animal of peace. But perhaps the reference is also to the ass as a work animal, the beast of burden, as Jesus is now the sin-carrier. The crowd is looking for a politician; they don't understand. But perhaps you and I do, inviting Jesus to enter my inner place, come to usher in a new  era of personal reconciliation, hope, joy and justice (as the new pope has stressed).

There's nothing in the gospels that tells us that it was children who climbed the trees, cut the branches and laid their cloaks on the ground, but the crowd. It's the hymns of the Church that reference children.

All glory, laud and honor
To you, Redeemer, King!
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.
(Passiontide Hymn: All Glory, Laud and Honor)

Or on Palm Sunday, Eastern Christians sing:

Sitting on your throne in heaven
Carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God
Accept the praise of angels and the songs of children who sing:
Blessed is He that comes to recall Adam!

In Matthew 18:3, Jesus enjoins us: "And he said: 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'." (NIV 2011) What's the point?

  • Children seem to have a trusting nature.
  • Children tend to believe in what's unseen.
  • Children are teachable (that's what humility is).
  • Children don't mind being seen as needy; they even relish being carried.
  • Children have an ability to accept others and look beyond differences.
  • Children come without pretensions, masks, ambition, accomplishments or power claims.
  • Children live in the present.
  • Children can be irrepressibly joyful.

Be like that with God, Jesus teaches. But children can also be messy. Many people, maybe especially religious people, have to stop thinking that God insists or expects we be all fixed up before approaching Him: that we have  the perfect prayer, the right doctrine, the required posture or disposition, being in some kind of inner state of worthiness. I'm thinking too of pious people who speak  in affected tones. The lyrics to Charlotte Elliott's hymn Just As I Am, Without One Plea, correct that thinking.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

In this icon for Palm Sunday, the children are very involved. They have climbed the tree and are spreading their coats on the ground. One upfront mom  even holds an infant who happily waves a little palm branch in  welcoming Jesus. As we ponder the icon we might consider also the Jesus-injunction to change and become like little children, and then see what we can do.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Our Lady of Intercession ~ Heaven Stops For Me

Here is the thirteenth century Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Intercession found in the Basilica of Sant' Alessio in Rome.

Mary seems to be in a hurry. Perhaps the angel of the Annunciation has just left her, and having thrown on her patterned maphorion, she speeds off on foot, and with happy news, to see her elder relative, Elizabeth. (Luke 1: 39-40).

But wherever Mary is hurrying to, it seems she has stopped abruptly, long enough to turn and look at me directly. She stands full-faced with her eyes locked on my own, clearly inviting me into intimacy.

The icon's golden background tells me Mary is making this contact from an eternal place. Her enlightening message comes to me from beyond. Indeed, that Mary's head seems too big and that a golden band, framing her face and accenting her forehead, echos the eternal background, suggests she is thinking other or extra-worldly thoughts.

Mary's eyes are large; she is wide awake to invisible realities, divine things, or the things that matter most. Perhaps she sees or perceives what I might be missing, however much time I spend investigating, looking around or checking things out.

Her nose is long and slender; she senses from beyond us. Her de-emphasized and small mouth suggests that she stands in the light as more inclined to listening than speaking, that she has transcended carnal or earthly things. Those of us who live in the overfed parts of an often hungry world might pay particular attention to this aspect of her face.

With her right hand Mary seems to be waving to me. What a lovely thought is this: heaven has stopped to acknowledge me! God knows and cares that I exist. In a bad-news world, God offers me some very personal good news, announcing, "I have called you by name; you are mine," (Isaiah 43:1). I can pray, simply holding this thought as I gaze at the icon of the Mother of God, who greets me with a wave.

But there is more, because the opening of hands and the raising up of arms, is a prayer-gesture in many religions. Intercession means praying for someone else. Many people ask for the prayers of others, especially when there are difficult problems, challenges or troubles. In this icon of Our Lady of Intercession, Mary seems to be looking deeply into my own inner life where I'm struggling, fearful, burdened, weary or confused, and there she prays with me, alongside me and even for me.