Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saint Michael in Room A

Spinello Aretino (active 1373; died 1410/11)
Saint Michael and Other Angels
about 1373-1410,
Fresco Fragment
Room A, The National Gallery, London

This is one of the fresco fragments of the work by Spinello Aretino. St Michael and the Angels are shown fighting a war in Heaven.

It is in Room A of The National Gallery in London and can only be viewed for a few hours every Wednesday afternoon

A native of Arezzo, Spinello worked all over Tuscany including Florence.

His most celebrated work and probably the most viewed is his series of frescoes on the Life of Saint Benedict in the sacristy of San Miniato in Florence.

One can sit and gaze at the frecoes there for hours. If you did not know anything about St Benedict before you went in, you will after sitting there for thirty minutes

He was buried in the Church of Saint Augustine in Arezzo

The fresco fragments in The National Gallery seem to be from the frescoes mentioned by his fellow Aretine, Vasari in his life of Spinello Aretino

Vasari said the frescoes were painted when Aretino was old and had "retired" back to his native town at the end of his long life:

"Having returned there [Arezzo], then, at the age of seventy-seven or more, he [Spinello Aretino] was received lovingly by his relatives and friends, and was ever afterward cherished and honoured up to the end of his life, which was at the age of ninety- two.

And although he was very old when he returned to Arezzo, and, having ample means, could have done without working, yet, as one who was ever used to working, he knew not how to take repose, and undertook to make for the Company of S. Agnolo in that city certain stories of S. Michael, which he sketched in red on the intonaco of the wall, in that rough fashion wherein the old craftsmen used generally to do it; and in one corner, for a pattern, he wrought and colored completely a single story, which gave satisfaction enough.

Then, having agreed on the price with those who had charge thereof, he finished the whole wall of the high altar, wherein he represented Lucifer fixing his seat in the North; and he made there the Fall of the Angels, who are being transformed into devils and raining down to earth; while in the air is seen a S. Michael, who is doing combat with the ancient serpent of seven heads and ten horns; and below, in the centre, there is a Lucifer, already transformed into a most hideous beast.

And Spinello took so much pleasure in making him horrible and deformed, that it is said (so great, sometimes, is the power of imagination) that the said figure painted by him appeared to him in a dream, asking Spinello where he had seen him so hideous, and why he had offered him such an affront with his brushes; and that he, awaking from his sleep, being unable to cry out by reason of his fear, shook with a mighty trembling, insomuch that his wife, awaking, came to his rescue. But he was none the less thereby in peril his heart being much strained of dying on the spot by reason of such an accident; and although he lived a little afterwards, he was half mad, with staring eyes, and he slipped into the grave, leaving great sorrow ..."

In the fresco we see depicted The War in Heaven mentioned in The Book of Revelation 12: 7 - 9:

"7: And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon; and the Dragon fought and his angels,
8: And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in Heaven.
9: And the great Dragon was cast out, that old Serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him"

These three verses about Civil War in Heaven and the overcoming by Good of Evil have inspired many. Not least Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608–1674). Here is part of Book VI:

"........Amazement seized
The rebel Thrones, but greater rage, to see
Thus foiled their mightiest; ours joy filled, and shout, 200
Presage of victory, and fierce desire
Of battle: whereat Michaël bid sound
The Archangel trumpet. Through the vast of Heaven
It sounded, and the faithful armies rung
Hosannah to the Highest; nor stood at gaze 205
The adverse legions, nor less hideous joined
The horrid shock. Now storming fury rose,
And clamour such as heard in Heaven till now.
Was never; arms on armour clashing brayed
Horrible discord, and the madding wheels 210
Of brazen chariots raged; dire was the noise
Of conflict; overhead the dismal hiss
Of fiery darts in flaming volleys flew,
And, flying, vaulted either host with fire.
So under fiery cope together rushed 215
Both battles main with ruinous assault
And inextinguishable rage. All Heaven
Resounded; and, had Earth been then, all Earth
Had to her centre shook. What wonder, when
Millions of fierce encountering Angels fought 220
On either side, the least of whom could yield
These elements, and arm him with the force
Of all their regions? How much more of power
Army against army numberless to raise
Dreadful combustion warring, and disturb, 225
Though not destroy, their happy native seat;
Had not the Eternal King Omnipotent
From his strong hold of Heaven high overruled
And limited their might, though numbered such
As each divided legion might have seemed 230
A numerous host, in strength, each armèd hand
A legion! Led in fight, yet leader seemed
Each warrior single as in chief; expert
When to advance, or stand, or turn the sway
Of battle, open when, and when to close 235
The ridges of grim war. No thought of flight,
None of retreat, no unbecoming deed
That argued fear; each on himself relied
As only in his arm the moment lay
Of victory. Deeds of eternal fame 240
Were done, but infinite; for wide was spread
That war, and various: sometimes on firm ground
A standing fight; then, soaring on main wing,
Tormented all the air; all air seemed then
Conflicting fire. Long time in even scale 245
The battle hung; till Satan, who that day
Prodigious power had shown, and met in arms
No equal, ranging through the dire attack
Of fighting Seraphim confused, at length
Saw where the sword of Michael smote, and felled 250
Squadrons at once: with huge two-handed sway
Brandished aloft, the horrid edge came down
Wide-wasting. Such destruction to withstand
He hasted, and opposed the rocky orb
Of tenfold adamant, his ample shield, 255
A vast circumference. At his approach
The great Archangel from his warlike toil
Surceased, and, glad, as hoping here to end
Intestine war in Heaven, the Arch-foe subdued,
Or captive dragged in chains, with hostile frown 260
And visage all inflamed"

Does St Michael have a place outside art or story telling ? Well yes if one can get past the patina of scientific realism which suffuses modern society.

Pope Benedict XVI explained it thus in a homily to Bishops in 2007 on the Memorial of the three Archangels in St Peter's Basilica on Saturday, 29 September 2007:

"First of all there is Michael. We find him in Sacred Scripture above all in the Book of Daniel, in the Letter of the Apostle St Jude Thaddeus and in the Book of Revelation.

Two of this Archangel's roles become obvious in these texts. He defends the cause of God's oneness against the presumption of the dragon, the "ancient serpent", as John calls it.

The serpent's continuous effort is to make men believe that God must disappear so that they themselves may become important; that God impedes our freedom and, therefore, that we must rid ourselves of him.

However, the dragon does not only accuse God. The Book of Revelation also calls it "the accuser of our brethren..., who accuses them day and night before our God" (12: 10).

Those who cast God aside do not make man great but divest him of his dignity. Man then becomes a failed product of evolution. Those who accuse God also accuse man.

Faith in God defends man in all his frailty and short-comings: God's brightness shines on every individual. ...

And what more could one say and think about man than the fact that God himself was made man?

Michael's other role, according to Scripture, is that of protector of the People of God (cf. Dn 10: 21; 12: 1).

Dear friends, be true "guardian angels" of the Church which will be entrusted to you!

Help the People of God whom you must lead in its pilgrimage to find the joy of faith and to learn to discern the spirits: to accept good and reject evil, to remain and increasingly to become, by virtue of the hope of faith, people who love in communion with God-Love."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Labouring in Vineyards

Georges Rohner 1913 - 2000
Le Labourage dans les vignes
Working amongst the vines
Oil on canvas
60 cm x 73 cm
Musée départemental de l'Oise, Beauvais

Rohner was passionate about art. He helped found a new movement "Forces nouvelles" dedicated to the art of drawing well and to return to nature

In 1940 he was interned at Trèves. In the chapel at Stalag XII D he painted « Le Christ aux prisonniers» (see below)

Georges Rohner 1913 - 2000
Le Christ aux prisonniers
Christ amongst the Prisoners
Oil on canvas
190 cm x 34.4 cm
Musée national d'Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

In 1968 he was elected to the Académie des beaux-arts where he occupied the seat once taken by Ingres.

In 1965 he illustrated the French Catholic author François Mauriac`s " Oeuvres romanesques "

Here he is in a video talking about art and some of his works (in French):

The Parable of The Two Sons and The Parable of the Tenants are set in vineyards, places of work belonging to the Father.

Christ had entered Jerusalem and was preaching in the Temple Courts. He was overheard by the Chief Priests and Elders. They came up to him and asked him by what authority he preached (Matthew 21)

The narrative continues:

"24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The Parable of the Two Sons

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

The Parable of the Tenants

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet."

Pope Benedict XVI recently said that the first of these two parables should disturb us greatly

He said of the punchline to the first parable:

"Translated into the language of the present day, this statement might sound something like this:

agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of their sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is “routine” and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts."

Both parables certainly disturbed the Chief Priest and the elders, so disturbed that they wanted to arrest Jesus. If they could have, they would have. They wanted him silenced and punished. And to an extent they did and it appeared for a very short time that they were successful

The two parables are linked.

The first parable is about two of the sons: the one who said "No" but did what he was told; the other who said "Yes" but did not bother. The third parable is about the third son: the one who said "Yes" and went and did his Father`s will and suffered death as a result.

The Pope went on in his homily:

"The Gospel for this Sunday, as we saw, speaks of two sons, but behind them, in a mysterious way, is a third son.

The first son says “no,” but does the father’s will. The second son says “yes,” but does not do what he was asked. The third son both says “yes” and does what he was asked.

This third son is the Only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who has gathered us all here.

Jesus, on entering the world, said: “Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God” (Heb 10:7). He not only said “yes”, he acted on that “yes”, and he suffered it, even to death on the Cross.

As the Christological hymn in the second reading says:

“Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross” (Phil. 2: 6-8).

In humility and obedience, Jesus fulfilled the will of the Father and by dying on the Cross for his brothers and sisters, for us, he saved us from our pride and obstinacy. Let us thank him for his sacrifice, let us bend our knees before his name and proclaim together with the disciples of the first generation:

“Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11)."

(Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at Mass at Freiburg im Breisgau on Sunday, 25 September 2011)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Vineyards, vines and grapes

Paul Edouard Rischgitz (1828-1909)
Vintage on the banks of the Arve near Geneva
Oil on canvas
45.7 cm x 75 cm
The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ernst Straßner 1905-1991
Schwäbischer Weinberg
Universitätsmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Marburg

In Europe and around the Mediterranean it is the middle of the grape harvest. Unfortunately due to climate we in Britain (apart from a few areas in Southern England such as Dorking) do not participate.

Knowledge about the grape in Britain mainly concentrates on winemaking. It is an imported product. We do not see the time, effort and trouble gone into producing such a tiny berry.

The Limbourg Brothers
The Harvest in the Vineyard
From Le Calendrier. Le mois de septembre in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry
16th century
Illuminated manuscript
29cm x 21cm
Musée Condé, Chantilly

Vineyards are common in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. Viticulture has a long long pedigree going back to at least the Bronze Age.

Vineyards and the cultivation of the grape have been and still are part of "the culture"

Raw grapes and cooked vine leaves for eating, wine making, grape juice, the making of jams, molasses, the use of the grape as dried fruit (Raisins, currants and sultanas), the making of vinegar, and the making of grape seed oil, all are by products of a very versatile fruit.

Long known about and a whole art, craft and science has been devoted to it.

Noah grew vines on his farm apparently. Wine was used in Jewish feasts. The Greeks had a god Dionysos, and the Romans Bacchus, both intimately associated with the vine and the grape.

Christ too knew about vines and vineyards.

They crop up amongst his parables: The Labourers in the Vineyard [Matt 20:1-16]; The Parable of the Evil Husbandmen [ Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-9, Luke 20:9-16] and the so called parable of The Vine and the Branches [John 15:1-6]

And of course he chose the product of the vineyard to be the means of redemption

The Vine and the Branches was the recent subject of Pope Benedict`s homily at the Mass at the Olympiastadion (Berlin, 22 September 2011)

Jean François Millet 1814 - 1875
Binding the grapevine
Drawing: Black chalk, with blue wash
247 millimetres x 190 millimetres
The British Museum, London

It us only narrated in The Gospel of John. The words of Jesus come in the teaching to his disciples just before the Passover before his Passion, Crucifixion and death:

1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.

2 He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes 3 so that it bears more fruit.

3 You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.

4 Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.

5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.

6 Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.

7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.

8 By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

9 As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.

10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love.

11 "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.

12 This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.

13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

14 You are my friends if you do what I command you."
(John 15: 1 - 14)

Gérard David (c 1460 - 1523)
La Vierge et les Saintes / Virgin and Saints
Oil on wood panel
1.18 m x 2.12 m
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen

Pope Benedict in his homily said:

"If we consider these beati and the great throng of those who have been canonised and beatified, we can understand what it means to live as branches of Christ, the true vine, and to bear fruit.

Today’s Gospel puts before us once more the image of this climbing plant, that spreads so luxuriantly in the East, a symbol of vitality and a metaphor for the beauty and dynamism of Jesus’ fellowship with his disciples and friends – with us.

In the parable of the vine, Jesus does not say: “You are the vine”, but:

“I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5).

In other words: “As the branches are joined to the vine, so you belong to me! But inasmuch as you belong to me, you also belong to one another.”

This belonging to each other and to him is not some ideal, imaginary, symbolic relationship, but – I would almost want to say – a biological, life-transmitting state of belonging to Jesus Christ.

Such is the Church, this communion of life with Jesus Christ and for one another, a communion that is rooted in baptism and is deepened and given more and more vitality in the Eucharist. “I am the true vine” actually means: “I am you and you are I” – an unprecedented identification of the Lord with us, with his Church ...

Once again, Jesus says in the parable, and I quote:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (Jn 15:1),

and he goes on to explain that the vinedresser reaches for his knife, cuts off the withered branches and prunes the fruit-bearing ones, so that they bring forth more fruit.

Expressed in terms of the image from the prophet Ezekiel that we heard in the first reading, God wants to take the dead heart of stone out of our breast and give us a living heart of flesh (cf. Ez 36:26), a loving heart, a heart of gentleness and peace.

He wants to bestow new life upon us, full of vitality. Christ came to call sinners. It is they who need the doctor, not the healthy (cf. Lk 5:31f.). ...

[L]et us return to the Gospel. The Lord continues thus:

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me ... for apart from me [i.e. separated from me, or outside me] you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4f.).

Every one of us is faced with this choice. The Lord reminds us how much is at stake as he continues his parable:

“If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:6).

In his commentary on this text, Saint Augustine says:

“The branch is suitable only for one of two things, either the vine or the fire: if it is not in the vine, its place will be in the fire; and that it may escape the latter, may it have its place in the vine” (In Ioan. Ev. Tract. 81:3 [PL 35, 1842]).

The decision that is required of us here makes us keenly aware of the fundamental significance of our life choices. But at the same time, the image of the vine is a sign of hope and confidence.

Christ himself came into this world through his incarnation, to be our root. Whatever hardship or drought befall us, he is the source that offers us the water of life, that feeds and strengthens us.

He takes upon himself all our sins, anxieties and sufferings and he purifies and transforms us, in a way that is ultimately mysterious, into good branches that produce good wine.

In such times of hardship we can sometimes feel as if we ourselves were in the wine-press, like grapes being utterly crushed. But we know that if we are joined to Christ we become mature wine. God can transform into love even the burdensome and oppressive aspects of our lives.

It is important that we “abide” in Christ, in the vine. The evangelist uses the word “abide” a dozen times in this brief passage. This “abiding in Christ” characterizes the whole of the parable.

In our era of restlessness and lack of commitment, when so many people lose their way and their grounding, when loving fidelity in marriage and friendship has become so fragile and short-lived, when in our need we cry out like the disciples on the road to Emmaus:

“Lord, stay with us, for it is almost evening and darkness is all around us!” (cf. Lk 24:29),

in this present era, the risen Lord gives us a place of refuge, a place of light, hope and confidence, a place of rest and security.

When drought and death loom over the branches, then in Christ we find future, life and joy. In him we always find forgiveness and the opportunity to begin again, to be transformed as we are drawn into his love.

To abide in Christ means, as we saw earlier, to abide in the Church as well.

The whole communion of the faithful has been firmly incorporated into the vine, into Christ. In Christ we belong together. Within this communion he supports us, and at the same time all the members support one another.

We stand firm together against the storm and offer one another protection. Those who believe are not alone. We do not believe alone, we believe with the whole Church of all times and places, with the Church in heaven and the Church on earth.

The Church, as the herald of God’s word and dispenser of the sacraments, joins us to Christ, the true vine.

The Church as “fullness and completion of the Redeemer”, as Pius XII expressed it (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, AAS 35 [1943] p. 230: “plenitudo et complementum Redemptoris”), is to us a pledge of divine life and mediator of those fruits of which the parable of the vine speaks.

Thus the Church is God’s most beautiful gift.

Therefore Saint Augustine could say: “as much as any man loves the Church, so much has he the Holy Spirit” (In Ioan. Ev. Tract. 32:8 [PL 35:1646]).

With and in the Church we may proclaim to all people that Christ is the source of life, that he exists, that he is the great one for whom we keep watch, for whom we long so much. He gives himself, and thus he gives us God, happiness, and love.

Whoever believes in Christ has a future. For God has no desire for what is withered, dead, ersatz, and finally discarded: he wants what is fruitful and alive, he wants life in its fullness and he gives us life in its fullness."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Psalm 22: Some further verses

James Tissot (1836-1902).
My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Eli, Eli lama sabactani), 1886-1894.
Opaque watercolour over graphite on gray wove paper,
Image: 11 1/2 x 8 13/16 in. (29.2 x 22.4 cm).
Brooklyn Museum, New York

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 - 1847) composed the choral work Psalm 22 (Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen? / My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? ) in 1844 for the Cathedral Choir in Berlin.

Here is part of the rendition by Ensemble Vocal de La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale de Gand and directed by Philippe Herreweghe

Psalm 22 was the theme of Pope Benedict`s catechesis last Wednesday

Some verses of Psalm 22 - a Psalm of David concentrated on the first two verses of the Psalm and the Pope`s meditation on them

The Psalm still inspires composers. In 1987 the Canadian-Chinese composer, An-lun Huang composed A Cantata in Baroque Style: A Psalm of David - Psalm 22 for Pipe Organ and Mixed Voices Op. 43 (1987) (Text from the Holy Bible, King James Version)

Here is one of nine clips on Youtube of the work premiered in Moscow:

Here are the Pope`s final reflections on the remaining verses of the Psalm:

"In painful contrast, Psalm 22's initial cry of supplication is followed by the memory of the past:

"In thee our fathers trusted;
They trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
To thee they cried, and were saved;
In thee they trusted, and were not disappointed" (Verses 4-5).

The God who today appears so distant to the psalmist, is nevertheless the merciful Lord who Israel knew and experienced throughout her history. The man praying belongs to a people that was the object of God's love and that could witness to His fidelity to that love.

Beginning with the patriarchs, then in Egypt and in their long sojourn in the desert, in their stay in the Promised Land in contact with aggressive and hostile peoples, to the darkness of exile, the whole of biblical history was a story of the people crying out for help, and of God's saving responses.

And the psalmist here makes reference to the unwavering faith of his fathers, who "trusted" -- this word is repeated three times -- without ever being disappointed.

Now however, it appears that this chain of trustful invocation and divine response has been broken; the psalmist's situation appears to contradict the whole history of salvation, making the present reality all the more painful.

Barry Moser (b. 1940) with Bradley Hutchinson
They Laughed Me to Scorn Psalm 22:7 from The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible or the Moser Bible 1999
Print: Resingrave on Zerkall Bible paper
Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John's University

"But God cannot contradict Himself, and so the prayer returns to describing the painful situation of the man praying, in order to persuade God to have mercy and to intervene, as He had always done in times past.

The psalmist calls himself "a worm and not a man; scorned by men, and despised by the people" (Verse 6); he is mocked and scoffed at (Verse 7) and wounded precisely for his faith:

"He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!" (Verse 8),

they say.

Under the mocking blows of irony and contempt, it seems as though the persecuted one has lost all human semblance, like the suffering servant described in the Book of Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 52:14; 53:2b-3).

And like the just one oppressed in the Book of Wisdom (cf. 2:12-20), like Jesus on Calvary (cf. Matthew 27:39-43), the psalmist sees his relationship with the Lord called into question, in the cruel and sarcastic emphasis on what is making him suffer: the silence of God, His apparent absence.

Barry Moser (b. 1940) with Bradley Hutchinson
The Child and the Asp Isaiah 11:8 (detail) from The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible or The Moser Bible
Print: Resingrave on Zerkall Bible paper
Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John's University

"And yet, God was present in the life of the one praying with an undeniable closeness and tenderness. The psalmist reminds God of this:

"Yet thou art He who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother's breasts. Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God" (Verses 9-10).

The Lord is the God of life who brings to birth and welcomes the newborn, caring for him with a father's love. And if he previously remembered God's fidelity throughout the course of his people's history, now the man praying calls to mind his own personal history and relationship with the Lord, tracing it back to the particularly significant moment of the beginning of his life.

And there, despite his current desolation, the psalmist recognizes a closeness and a divine love so radical that he can now exclaim, in a confession full of faith and hope:

"Since my mother bore me, thou hast been my God" (Verse 10b).

Barry Moser (b. 1940) with Bradley Hutchinson
Many Are the Afflictions Psalm 34:19 (detail)from The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible or The Moser Bible
Print: Resingrave on Zerkall Bible paper
Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John's University

"The prayer of lament now becomes an anguished plea:

"Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help" (Verse 11).

The only closeness the psalmist perceives -- and which frightens him -- is that of his enemies. It is necessary, then, that God draw near and help, because the enemies of the man praying surround him, they encompass him like strong bulls that open wide their mouths to roar and tear him to pieces (cf. Verses 12-13).

Anguish changes the perception of the danger, magnifying it.

His adversaries seem invincible; they have become ferocious and dangerous animals, while the psalmist is like a little worm, powerless and utterly without defense.

But these images used by the psalmist also serve to illustrate [the truth] that when man becomes brutal and attacks his brother, something animal-like takes over in him, and he seems to lose every human semblance; violence always carries within itself something beastly, and only God's saving intervention can restore man to his humanity.

For the psalmist, who has become the object of such fierce aggression, there now seems to be no escape, and death begins to take hold of him:

"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint […] my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws […] they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots" (Verses 14-15; 18).

With dramatic images that we find again in the accounts of Christ's passion, the breaking of the body of the condemned is described, along with the unbearable burning thirst that torments the dying, and which is echoed in Jesus' request "I thirst" (cf. John 19:28), culminating finally in the definitive gesture of the torturers who, like the soldiers beneath the cross, divide the garments of the victim, who is looked upon as already dead (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24).

Then once again, we hear an urgent cry for help:

"But thou, O Lord, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid […] Save me" (Verses 19, 21a).

This is a cry that opens the heavens, because it proclaims a faith and a certainty that surpasses every doubt, every darkness and every experience of desolation.

Barry Moser (b. 1940) with Bradley Hutchinson
To Him Who Alone Doeth Great Wonders Psalm 136: 3-4 (detail) from The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible or The Moser Bible
Print: Resingrave on Zerkall Bible paper
Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John's University

"And the lamentation is transformed; it gives way to praise in the welcoming of salvation:

"You have answered me. I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee" (Verses 21c-22).

Thus, the psalm breaks forth into thanksgiving, into the great final hymn that involves the whole people, the Lord's faithful, the liturgical assembly, the future generations (cf. Verses 23-21).

The Lord has come to his help. He has saved the poor one and has shown him His merciful Face.

Death and life have met in an inseparable mystery, and life has triumphed. The God of salvation has shown Himself to be the uncontested Lord, whom all the ends of the earth will celebrate, and before whom all the families of peoples will bow down in worship.

It is the victory of faith, which is able to transform death into a gift of life -- the abyss of suffering into a source of hope.

Beloved brothers and sisters, this psalm has taken us to Golgotha, to the foot of Jesus' cross, in order to relive His passion and to share the fruitful joy of the resurrection.

Let us allow ourselves to be flooded by the light of the paschal mystery, even in [times] of God's seeming absence, even in God's silence, and like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, let us learn to discern the true reality that surpasses all appearances, by recognizing the path of exaltation precisely in humiliation and the full revelation of life in death, in the cross.

By thus placing all of our trust and hope in God the Father, in every anxiety we too will be able to pray to Him in faith, and our cry for help will be transformed into a hymn of praise."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Some verses of Psalm 22 - a Psalm of David

Prefatory miniature of King David playing the harp.
King David in the Psalms,
The Westminster Psalter,
London, c. 1200 ,
Royal 2 A. xxii, f. 14v
The British LIbrary, London

Miniature of The Agony of the Christ in the Garden
At the beginning of Psalm 22
From a Breviary in the use of Besançon
Besançon - BM - ms. 0069 p. 028

Man in vegetables in Initial D of Psalm 22
Book of Psalms
11th century (second half)
Troyes - BM - ms. 0976 f. 021

The first two verses of the Psalm are a desolate cry. They are a call from a man`s soul, the innermost depth of his being. They are the pitiful words of an isolated man beleaguered by misfortunes and apparently ignored even by God. He appears to be truly alone or thinks he is.

The apparent silence of God in the face of misfortune is perhaps the most wounding part of his troubles. The silence of loved ones can be a terrible weapon.

For Christians the initial words of the Psalm have deep significance and resonance. They form the last words of Christ on the Cross. This is no ordinary poem or prayer.

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

Pope Benedict XVI recently reflected on these verses of Psalm 22:

"This psalm presents the figure of an innocent man who is persecuted and surrounded by enemies who want his death; and he turns to God in a painful lamentation, which in the certainty of faith opens mysteriously to praise.

In his prayer, the distressing reality of the present and the consoling memory of the past alternate in an anguished awareness of his own desperate situation, yet this does not cause him to give up hope.

His initial cry is an appeal addressed to an apparently distant God who does not respond and who seems to have abandoned him ...

God remains silent, and this silence pierces the heart of the man who prays, who incessantly calls out, but who finds no response. The days and nights pass in an unwearied search for a word, for help that does not come. God seems so distant, so unmindful, so absent.

Prayer asks for listening and for a response; it invites contact; it seeks a relationship that can give comfort and salvation. But if God does not respond, the cry for help vanishes into the void, and the solitude becomes unbearable.

And yet, the man praying our psalm three times cries out, calling the Lord "my" God in an extraordinary act of trust and of faith.

Despite all appearances, the psalmist cannot believe that his bond with the Lord has been completely broken; and while he asks the reason for his present incomprehensible abandonment, he affirms that "his" God cannot abandon him.

It is well known that the psalm's initial cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?" is reported in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as the cry Jesus uttered as He was dying on the cross (cf. Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

This [cry] expresses all the desolation of the Messiah, the Son of God, as He faces the drama of death -- a reality utterly opposed to the Lord of life.

Abandoned by nearly all those who were His own, betrayed and denied by His disciples, surrounded by those who insult Him, Jesus is placed under the crushing weight of a mission that must pass through humiliation and abnegation.

He therefore cries out to the Father, and His suffering takes on the painful words of the psalm.

But His is not a desperate cry, nor was that of the psalmist, who in his supplication journeys along a path of torment that nonetheless opens to a vista of praise and trust in the divine victory.

And since according to Jewish use, to cite the beginning of a psalm implied a reference to the whole poem, Jesus' heartrending prayer -- while full of unspeakable suffering -- opens to the certainty of glory.

"Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:26)

the Risen One will say to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

During His passion, in obedience to the Father, the Lord Jesus passes through abandonment and death in order to attain life and to grant it to those who believe."

Here is the full text of the Psalm:

Psalm 22

Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility
To the leader:
Sung according to The Deer of the Dawn.
A Psalm of David

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth* is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;*
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life* from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued* me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;*
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,*
but heard when I* cried to him.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor* shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.*
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

29 To him,* indeed, shall all who sleep in* the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.*
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and* proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Notable Encounter

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema O.M. R.A. 1836 - 1912
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra 41 BC
Oil on panel
65.5 x 91.4 cm
Private collection

Between 1850 and 1912, Shakespeare`s Antony and Cleopatra was regularly staged at London's theatres. The Egyptian queen was fully entrenched in the public's mind

In this great work, Alma-Tadema depicts visually what is only narrated in the play by one of Antony`s commanders: how Antony met Cleopatra and became entranced by her.

In AD 41 Antony, one of the triumvirs ruling the Roman Empire, summoned Cleopatra (who had been Julius Caesar's lover) to Tarsus in Cilicia to prove her loyalty. She came. The rest is history.

In this depiction of the famous scene, the focus of attention is Cleopatra. All figures are gazing at her. Including the viewer. She looks out at the viewer of the painting. She is beguiling and enchanting

We are looking at Cleopatra`s universe and she of course is the centre of it. We all think we are the centre of the universe. But she knows that for a brief period of time she is it. She revels in it. She eclipses all others including the powerful and magnificent Mark Antony.

The effect is the result of planning and artifice.

The description of the scene by Enobarbus in the play is one of the great speeches in English drama. It is pure poetry, appealing to all the senses of the listener`s imagination:

"When she first met Mark Antony, she pursed up
his heart, upon the river of Cydnus ...

I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did ...

Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i' the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i' the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature."

Like Agrippa in the play, we can only gasp in response "Rare Egyptian!"

Enobarbus continues:

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish"
The famous description is an impression, a dream sequence for the listeners rather than reality. There is an ethereal and temporary quality of the scene being described, almost like shadows on the wall of a cave

It is of course too good to be true. And the play is of course one of Shakespeare`s tragedies

For the Egyptian Queen and her lover, passion and voluptuousness become their universe. Their world comes into conflict with the Roman world of reason and realpolitik. The lovers are caught up in themselves. Their intense love seems to herald mutual self-destruction. Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus) of Rome triumphs over the East.

The play was written in the period 1603 -07 just after King James I had succeeded Queen Elizabeth. At the time James was compared to Augustus. When he came to the throne there was much Jacobite propaganda including a coronation medal that had a picture of James wearing a laurel wreath and an inscription describing him as ‘Caesar Augustus of Britain.’

But the play is much more than Jacobite propaganda. The attitude towards the complex characters of Antony and Cleopatra is in many ways ambivalent. Even in defeat and suicide, they seem to retain a form of greatness.

It is a strange and ambivalent play about strange and mysterious people: human beings who try to overcome their humanity and their fellow human beings and attempt to become gods, part of the then pagan pantheon.

In the last Act Cleopatra sings the praises of her dead lover:

"His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear'd arm
Crested the world; his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't, an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping; his delights
Were dolphin-like, they show'd his back above
The element they liv'd in; in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets, realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket."
(V. Scene 2. 82-92)

When told that there was never a man like Antony, Cleopatra replies:

"You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But, if there be, or ever were, one such,
It's past the size of dreaming; nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet to imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite."
(V. Scene 2. 94-99)

The play is set in the time before Christ. Glamour, glitz, bling, statecraft and raw military and political power fill the scenes and we are dazzled and entranced.

But Shakespeare`s audience were deeply religious. And, strangely, God appears to be absent from the play.

But there is a hint that the age of Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian is just about to come to an end and we are seeing the cusp of a new era and dispensation. With the victory of Augustus, we think we see the triumph of Reason and Political Power backed up by Military Force.

After the defeat of Cleopatra, Egypt and the other Middle Eastern states became Roman provinces or client states.

But about 40 years after the events of the play, much more dramatic events were to happen in King Herod`s kingdom and also in Egypt

The great meeting between Antony and Cleopatra took place in Tarsus in Celicia in 41 BC. And 49 years later, in AD 8, the Apostle Saul (later renamed Paul) was born there.

And the world would never be quite the same place again.