January 25: The Conversion of St. Paul

O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world; Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul

The Incredulity of St. Thomas

In my sermon yesterday, I referenced Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas. As I noted, the gospel makes no mention of Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds. In fact, given the gospel’s emphasis on “seeing” and Jesus’ reply to Thomas that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” to focus attention on Thomas’ touch of Jesus quite misses the gospel’s point. Here’s the painting:

And a detail:

Judas Iscariot

I’ve been thinking about Judas a good bit. The initial prompt was the gospel for the 5th Sunday in Lent about which I preached here. There we learn pretty much everything we know about Judas Iscariot–that he is the son of Simon Iscariot, that he is one of the twelve, that he keeps the common purse. John also calls him a thief and puts in his mouth the criticism that Mark attributed to “the disciples”–that the money Mary spent on the perfume would have better gone to help the poor.

In the gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week, we read the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in John 13. Of all the gospels, John is the most insistent on the devil’s role in Judas’ actions but Judas’ reasons for betraying Jesus are not at all clear. Many scholars have speculated that the name “Iscariot” refers to a group of assassins named the “sicarii” who were active a couple of decades after Jesus and that Judas may have been actively engaged in revolt or resistance against Rome. Others suggest the term is derived from a village in Judea and point out that Judas’ father is also known as Iscariot. Matthew attributes Judas’ motives to money, although the sum he receives, 30 pieces of silver, is not especially valuable and Judas seeks to return it as he repents of his actions.

I think the most likely motivation for Judas lies in the political sphere. From the synoptics, it’s apparent that the disciples don’t really know why Jesus is going to Jerusalem. They don’t understand the predictions of his death. It’s likely that any messianic speculation they might have had would have focused on Jesus leading a revolt against Rome, perhaps invoking heavenly armies to do battle with the Roman Empire. Judas may have betrayed Jesus in an effort to force his hand, to compel him to take action against Rome. If so, he was wrong, and his repentance after the fact may be evidence that he came to understand what Jesus was really about.

Judas is an enigmatic figure not just because we know so little about him (the uproar about the Gospel of Judas notwithstanding). He is enigmatic because we struggle to understand his motives. If Satan was the driving force in his betrayal, then Judas is more a tragic figure than a villain.

The Christian tradition has tended to interpret Judas as a diabolical figure in his own right. That’s particularly true of artistic representations. The famous fresco by Giotto in the Arena Chapel has been a powerful influence on later interpretations of Judas. Giotto depicts him as barely human. His features are ape-like, animal, and he radiates hate and evil.


A later depiction, by Caravaggio, takes Judas’ other-ness in a different direction. Now, he is the most “Jewish” looking of anyone in the painting:


In each case, Judas becomes someone with whom we can no longer identify: the personification of evil, of other-ness. And the same is true in recent cinematic or television portrayals of Judas. He is dark and swarthy, easily imagined as an undocumented immigrant or a muslim, certainly not “one of us.” That’s unfortunate because one of the things we can say certainly about Judas was that Jesus called him as a disciple, as one of the inner circle, the twelve. He walked with Jesus through Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem. He heard him teach, saw the miracles he performed. In that he was like all of the other disciples. His misunderstanding of Jesus was no deeper than that of any of the others, although he acted on it in ways they did not. But none of them understood what it meant to follow Jesus. None of them understood fully who Jesus was. That understanding came only after cross and resurrection.

There are ways in which we are very much like Judas. We heap all sorts of expectations on him, we want him to be a certain way, to do certain things, to confirm our expectations. We may not betray him as dramatically as Judas betrayed Jesus, but we do betray him, when we refuse to share his love, when we neglect the needs of those around us, when we seek to remain in our secure and complacent faith, and fail to follow Jesus on the road that leads to the cross. We are Judas, at least some of the time, just like there are times when we are Peter who denied him, and like all those who abandoned him. But Jesus loves us, just like he loved Peter, and the other disciples, and even, dare I say it, Judas?



The Conversion of St. Paul (or another excuse for posting a Caravaggio image)

Today is the Conversion of St. Paul. There are at least three versions of this event in the New Testament. The most famous is Acts 9:1-22. From there we have all of the juicy details–Paul’s persecution of the early Christian community, the road to Damascus, his ensuing blindness. Luke gives us another version of the same event in Acts 22:3-16. Paul describes the same event in rather different terms in Galatians 1. Paul’s account describes a different sequence of events following his “conversion,” but more importantly, he doesn’t use language of conversion at all. Instead, Paul writes of being called:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16)

The notion that Paul’s conversion was a dramatic break from the past is firmly fixed in Christian thought and devotion and there is some legitimacy to it. Paul himself describes a radical break from his past of persecuting Christans. However, in another way, it wasn’t a conversion. He does not see himself “converting” from one religion to another, from Judaism to Christianity.

Still, conversion holds a powerful grip on Christian reflection, and indeed that grip has strengthened over the centuries, especially since the 18th century Evangelical Revival (led by the Wesleys and George Whitefield).

Whatever one thinks of the historicity of Luke’s account, and the utility of viewing the Christian life in terms of conversion, perhaps the most powerful depiction of Luke’s version is that of Caravaggio:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us: Christmas Day, 2009

And the Word became flesh

Christmas Day, 2009

Grace Church

In the beginning was the Word. Have you ever wondered what that might mean? Are words, is a word, ever at the beginning? I remember when I was in college thinking a lot about words. I repeatedly had the experience, I’m sure everyone’s had it, where I couldn’t quite find the word to express the thought I was having. I would be frustrated because my grand idea never sounded as good when I spoke it as when I was thinking it. As I studied foreign languages, and as I became fluent in German, that feeling became even more common. There were times when I wanted to say something in English, and knew the perfect German word, but no English word seemed adequate. Of course the opposite was true as well.

Words are funny things. We need them to communicate; we also need them to think. Philosophers debate, and have debated for thousands of years, whether the written word is more important or less important than the spoken word, and where the unspoken idea fits, as well. I’m sure you know that the word translated in John 1:1 as “word” can mean other things, among them reason, wisdom, even idea. These verses in the Gospel of John are so important in the Christian tradition because they make the connection between us and God in a profound way. It is fitting that the church has long read this gospel on Christmas Day, because it allows us to reflect on the miracle of the incarnation.

For John to begin this way—in the beginning was the word—is to link Christmas to creation. In the beginning was the word draws our attention away from Bethlehem for a moment and to the whole universe. In Genesis 1, God creates by speaking. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light and God saw that it was good.”

Creation and Christmas are linked, not just because John 1 is the gospel for Christmas Day. Creation and Christmas are linked because Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation, when we celebrate Christ becoming human. The Incarnation, Christmas reminds us that it the universe in which we live was created by God, and that it was created good. The Incarnation and Christmas teach us the important lesson that the world in which we live, the bodies that we inhabit, were created good.

It is a difficult lesson to learn, because so much of our experience seems to deny that goodness. To deny the goodness of creation is one of the oldest heresies in Christianity. It appears to us in various guises. Sometimes, it rejects the material world, even our human bodies as evil and sees salvation as deliverance from this mortal flesh. Sometimes, it appears in another form, when you hear Christians wanting God to destroy everything, punish the world and all that is in it and start over.

In the ancient world, it was inconceivable for many, especially the more learned, to imagine that the divine might become human. By the time of the New Testament, most cultured Greeks and Romans thought the old myths, even the old gods—Zeus, Apollo, and the like—were nothing more than stories that might have a suitable moral. But for these people, the idea that the divine could become flesh and bone was inconceivable. That bias remained in early Christianity, and for many, it remains today. Many Christians are uncomfortable thinking about a Jesus who had emotions, or was ever hungry, or whose body was limited in the ways that our bodies are.

Of course, that is what the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem is all about—that God became flesh like we are flesh. In these verses from John, we here both sides of the paradox that is the incarnation. On the one hand, the profound statement that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” On the other hand, that profound statement, “and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. In that paradox is the heart of the Christian message, that the God who created the World is present among us, recreating us, and the world.

Those Christians who, in centuries past and today, have a strong sense of the fallen-ness of human nature and the fallen-ness of creation are not entirely wrong. St. Paul writes in the letter to the Romans “that all creation has been groaning until now.” The English poet John Milton put it another way. When describing Adam and Eve eating the apple in Paradise Lost, Milton writes “Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her Seat, Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe that all was Lost.”

All was not lost. Milton and Paul are trying to express that deep sense that things are not as they should be. It is a sense we all have when we encounter suffering, or death, or any inadequacy in ourselves or in those around us. But in spite of that, creation is good. It must be, for we believe it was created by God, who is good.

Today on Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. I began by speaking about the inadequacy of words. Words can hurt, we can easily misunderstand one another; we find it hard to express ourselves as clearly and plainly as we want. Our faith is expressed in words, and very often those words seem inadequate to say what we think they mean; sometimes we wonder whether we really believe what we say. Christians have fought over words, and still do, we fight over the meaning of the creed and over the meaning of scripture.

In the beginning was the Word—the logos, the idea, perhaps even a conversation that God had with Godself. When God created with the Word, when God comes to us in the Word, God reaches out to us to draw us to God. We don’t need to try to comprehend it, because it can’t be. We need only be assured that God is present, in Word and Sacrament, and in the Incarnation.

Muddy feet: Christmas Eve 2009

Muddy Feet

Christmas Eve

Grace Episcopal Church

December 24, 2009

This Advent, I’ve been blessed by a series of encounters with great art. A group of us were treated to a tour of the Chazen led by parishioner and curator Maria Dale. The tour introduced me to several spectacular images of the Virgin Mary that continue to fascinate me. The next week, Corrie and I spent a day in the Art Institute of Chicago, and much of that time was spent in front of a Caravaggio on loan from England. Then on Sunday the 13th, Tom Dale, Professor of Art History here at the university, gave us a whirlwind survey of images of the Virgin Mary.

Among those images was one that has haunted me ever since. It’s another Caravaggio, this time the Madonna of the Loreto. It’s the image on the service bulletin tonight and was painted by the great, and controversial Italian painter on commission for a chapel in San Agostino in Rome’s Piazza Navona. When it was unveiled, there was considerable controversy. Mary is barefoot and looks like a very ordinary woman, with only the faintest hint of halo to distinguish her from the other people in the picture. Even more scandalous, the dramatic focus of the painting seems to be the dirty feet of the man who is kneeling in homage to her.

A black and white reproduction of that painting is on the cover of tonight’s service bulletin. It’s probably difficult to make out details in the image, but I think you’ll agree that the peasant’s feet seem to be the center of attention. And it was those feet, crusted in dirt, as well as the fact that the Virgin herself is barefoot, that led to the public’s derision of it.

The peasant’s muddy feet. I have no idea why Caravaggio painted this image in the way he did. What little I do know about him leads me to think he was a something of a seventeenth-century equivalent of those contemporary artists who seem most interested in shocking the public. But I think most scholars agree that whatever his motives, and in spite of his scandalous life, Caravaggio was also a man of faith, who sought to express that faith through his life.

The peasant’s muddy feet. His public rejected the image because it did not conform to their ideas of beauty and what was appropriate for the chapel in which the image was to hang. It offended their artistic and religious sensibilities. I doubt any of you would even notice the dirty feet if you were looking at this image where it now hangs. You wouldn’t notice those muddy feet unless your attention were drawn to them by a guide or art historian, and even then, you probably wouldn’t think there was much wrong with the picture. It’s a beautiful painting, masterfully done, in a style we all associate with religious art, with high art.

Now I know that some of you may have muddy boots having braved tonight’s weather to come here, but I suspect most of you are dressed a little better than usual. It’s Christmas Eve after all, a time to celebrate, and most of us want to do things that will make Christmas seem a little different than any other day—Why else would you have come to church tonight? Christmas is out of the ordinary, and we want to mark that in all kinds of ways, with festive dress, great food and wine, and the like.

As part of that celebration, but only part, we have gathered here. Some of us for the first time, many of us returning here from the places we now live, and others who come here most Sundays. We come to connect with our past. We come also to connect with our faith, or to reconnect, or perhaps, we come even in search of or grasping for faith. All of those reasons, and many others have brought us here.

We come here, tonight, in the midst of an uncertain and changing world, looking for stability, and certainty. We yearn for the old familiar ways. We want to be reassured that in spite of everything going on in our lives and in our world, for a few minutes at least, for an hour or so, we can push away all of our doubts and fears, our pain and suffering, and relish once again, the lessons and carols that we have heard so many times before. We are here to celebrate again the birth of Jesus Christ.

We come out of duty, out of habit, and out of hope. Like the shepherds, we come hoping that we will encounter Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, in word and sacrament. But in spite of that hope, we probably do not expect to be transformed as the shepherds were, as Joseph and Mary were. Our expectations may be low, if only because it’s all so familiar to us.

This aura of familiarity surrounds the great mystery of our faith—that God has become human, that 2000 years ago, in a crude manger in a stable for animals, God became incarnate in a tiny baby. That great mystery is so incomprehensible, so beyond our grasp, that over the centuries we have done everything in our power to protect ourselves from its explosive power.

In the twenty-first century, it has come to this. We celebrate Christmas with blow-up Santas in our front yards, with nativity scenes that include Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer and Frosty the Snowman alongside the shepherds and magi. We celebrate the birth of Christ in an orgy of consumerism and then pause this evening, to acknowledge for a few minutes what we ought to be celebrating this season.

We want to bundle our celebration of Christmas in a package of sweet consumeristic nostalgia. We want to worship the Christ child, but we want to do so on our terms—to approach the manger with eyes veiled and ears closed. We surround ourselves with kitsch and extravagance to shield us from the simple, wonderful power of this story.

We come to hear the old familiar story and sing the familiar carols. We come full of nostalgia and perhaps hope. And many of us, all of us come with dark places in our lives—with concerns, doubts, fears. We come with muddy feet, if you will, muddy feet that we hope no one else will notice and that we try to forget.

In fact, Christmas is muddy and messy. It’s supposed to be. Luke tells a story that is about God becoming human, God becoming one of us, God taking on flesh that is just like ours, a body like ours with all of its messiness. Because we all know, bodies are messy.

I’m reminded again and again when I talk with people about how hard it is for us to accept the doctrine of the Incarnation—that God became flesh, that Jesus is the Son of God. There’s something about it that tends to bother us. Many of us get caught up in the biology of it, or in the difficulty of believing that the divine can become concrete in such a way. It seems like Luke’s story is written in such a way as to offend modern sensibilities. If we ask the obvious questions, our faith might shatter, so we push them away and remain content with the story.

Jesus came among us, not as a ruler but as a baby. He came to a poor peasant woman of Galilee and a poor carpenter, a couple that was engaged, not married. The shepherds who heard the angels’ message were of even lower status. They came from the fields, just as they were, muddy feet, tattered clothes, and all.

They came to worship, as we do. And that’s our mistake. We want to understand, categorize, make sense of the story. But when we do so we lose sight of the mystery of it—the mystery and wonder of God becoming flesh and living among us. That great mystery cannot be comprehended, and yes, our only response should be to worship.

And that is why this story, this night cannot be contained by our feeble attempts to celebrate it. We cannot hope to understand the incarnation. We cannot grasp what God becoming flesh might mean. But it is not ours to accept or reject. It is ours to ponder and treasure, to puzzle over for our whole lives. How might we respond to the love of God that we meet here, in this place, on Christmas? It is a love that accepts us whoever we are, however we are, wherever we are, muddy feet and all.

Let us put aside all of the trappings and the trimmings, the decorations, the kitsch, the extravagance, and like Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, encounter Christ Jesus as a babe in a manger. Let us open our hearts to ponder this mystery, of God become flesh. Let us also, as we approach the altar encounter the love of Christ, encounter Christ himself in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast.

May his love enter our hearts, transforming us, so that we might show forth the love of Jesus Christ in all that we do, this day, and forever more. Amen.