A Bloody Cross, An Empty Tomb

Masaccio. "The Holy Trinity," 1425. Florence - Santa Maria Novella.

Masaccio. “The Holy Trinity,” 1425. Florence – Santa Maria Novella.

There’s this painting in this church in Italy of the crucified Christ. It’s big, it’s raised up high, and it’s painted in such a way that it looks dimensional – like an actual crucifixion is taking place within this church.

From where they’re standing, the viewer sees Christ. You see his father above him, and the Spirit between them. The Son is flanked by his mother and disciple, and two of the artist’s patrons. Despite the bizarre and gruesome way in which our Lord was killed, it’s a pretty ordinary scene, one depicted in many places and times.

But it’s what sits beneath it that’s particularly interesting: a skeleton. At eye-level, there’s a nearly life-sized depiction of a human skeleton, nestled beneath the crucified Christ. This anonymous body – meant to represent Adam, or the artist, or humanity, or the human condition, or whatever – lies in a tomb. Above him are the words, in Italian: I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.
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Am I Better than a Frat Boy?

 

Another fraternity has gotten itself into some trouble, and since this one was pretty close to home, it’s been all over my newsfeed. Last week, Penn State suspended its chapter of Kappa Delta Rho, after it was discovered that the frat had a secret Facebook group which publicized photos of, amongst other things, drug transactions and unconscious women. People seem pretty outraged (though perhaps not entirely shocked) by this, both the fact that it happened in the first place, and that it happened so brazenly.

Adding fuel to the media’s fire, one KDR member somewhat infamously (and anonymously) gave a statement defending his fraternity, saying: Continue reading →

Pigs, Demons, and the Problem of Evil

I had the honor of being featured in Liberti Church’s Lent & Easter Prayerbook again – the reflection I wrote accompanied this past Sunday’s reading (Mark 5:1-16). Here’s an excerpt:  

The demon possessed man was destroyed by evil.

His body, his mind, his relationships – utterly and tangibly ravished by the second-most powerful force in the universe. We learn in today’s reading that this is the kind of evil with the strength of an army – it cannot be bound. And yet when it meets the Son of God, it is feeble and desperate.

The evil we see here is real and mighty. And even though our lives may look a lot different than that of the man we meet in this story, we’ve all encountered the same kind of evil. It alienates us from our God, our community, even ourselves. Every aspect of creation is affected by it. It has overtaken our lives.

For the rest, head over to Restoration Living, or check out the Prayerbook itself.

Jesus, You Party Animal

One of my favorite New Testament stories made its way into my reading this week. I’m talking of course, about the first part of John 2 – the wedding at Cana. I love this story because it’s when Jesus reveals his glory to his disciples. 

Just kidding. I love it because of all the booze.

I promise this isn’t just because I really like wine. There’s a lot of great stuff in this story that I think might get overlooked, since the nature of this miracle seems so different than that of the others. But here’s the good stuff that stuck out to me this time around:

Jesus and his crew partied, and they partied hard. John doesn’t say too much about the newlyweds or other wedding guests, but whoever they were, they ran out of wine before anyone was ready to call it a night (…awkward…).  Continue reading →

Of Palm & Ash

Lately I’ve been thinking about the life cycle of a palm branch.

Just under a year ago, I purchased hundreds of palm branches from a florist down the street, and spent the afternoon trimming them down so that the following Sunday – Palm Sunday – my congregation could wave them around and mark the beginning of Holy Week in style. These leaves were vibrant and fresh, recently plucked from a tree in some perpetually lush part of the world.

The leftover branches ended up on the floor of my office next to my desk. They sat there unnoticed for the better part of a year. And they died: they gradually lost their color and their moisture, turning into crunchy, pasty-yellow things. Continue reading →

The Surprisingly Feminist Story of Jesus

In 2014, in America, Christianity is often associated with the oppression of women. That’s pretty embarrassing, and it’s one of those things that makes it hard to call one’s self a Christian in the public square. I will note that some of this association is probably falsely construed, or at least, exaggerated or misunderstood. But some of it isn’t. It pains me to acknowledge that things like oppressive gender roles, unequal compensation, unfair/absurd expectations, and rape culture have been advanced in the name of Christ.

The great irony here is that the story of Christ could be read as one of the first feminist manifestos. Continue reading →

Everything in its Time

Hours after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who murdered Eric Garner, the City of Philadelphia lit up a Christmas tree. Normally, it’s a festive event – this year it was interrupted by protestors. It was a strange juxtaposition: Bundled up toddlers standing alongside outraged activists. Holiday decorations upstaged by signs begging “Stop Killer Cops” Carols drowned out by chants of “Hands Up: Don’t shoot!”

It’s always interesting to me when terrible stuff happens around the holidays. Objectively, tragedy is tragedy no matter when it occurs. But whenever something bad happens this time of year – when our society is trying to focus on things like peace, joy, family, and generosity – it stands out a bit more and pulls on our heartstrings a bit harder. Continue reading →

The Ultimate Holiday Blog Post

The December edition of Real Simple magazine arrived in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. Sprawled across the cover are some glitzy Christmas lights and the words “Holiday Spectacular: Your Happiest Season Ever Starts Here.” The November issue (“The Ultimate Holiday Planner”) was pretty similar in nature and content. These two magazines contain dozens of helpful articles covering a wide range of holiday-centered topics: affordable gifts, make-ahead recipes, quick cleaning solutions, winter skin care, avoiding awkward moments with family and friends, easy decorations, and, my personal favorite, “How to Teach Gratitude.”

All of this information promises a simple, cheerful, and stress-free holiday season. Which makes me wonder, why do we meticulously plan for and strategize about the holiday season? We turn to guides, lists, and diagrams to help us “get through” the holiday season, as if it is something that needs to be accomplished. This suggests to me that as a culture, we are doing hospitality wrong. Continue reading →

The God of Bread and Wine

There’s this painting by Salvador Dali hanging somewhere in the National Gallery entitled “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” Here, Dali is depicting what many other great artists before him have depicted – one of the most crucial, remembered, and celebrated meals in history. His rendering of this moment is transcendent. Christ, surrounded by his followers, is clean, pure, and translucent. The communion elements are laid out on the table before him in perfect symmetry. It’s a cleverly crafted and deeply thought-provoking work of art, an excellent demonstration of Dali’s genius and skill.

But it’s all wrong.

At the last supper, Jesus does indeed represent the clean and pure lamb of God – figuratively. But he had just spent the day hanging out in ancient Jerusalem, and, in an act of great humility, washed his disciples’ feet (with his hands, without gloves. Disgusting, and beautiful). His clothes were not clean and his hands were not pure. And he was there, physically, tangibly; not hovering above the table like a ghost or something. He was and is God, and he was and is man too. His body was at that table and with his friends, breaking bread and sharing wine.

And that bread and wine were not pre-packaged or store-bought, purchased hastily and thoughtlessly on the way to a friend’s house for dinner. Someone, possibly someone in that household or eating that Passover meal, made them from scratch in a very physical process.

Days before, that bread was grain, gathered from a nearby field and ground into flour. It was prepared quickly – unleavened – and taken out of the oven just hours before God himself took it and said, “this is my Body, broken for you.” The wine, on the other hand, would have required much more time. While unleavened bread is a helpful reminder of the Israelites‘ urgent flight from Egypt, wine reminds us of something else. Waiting and patience, perhaps. Those grapes were taken from a vine long ago, processed and left to ferment in a cool, dark place, for months, or possibly years. Jesus loves good wine, so I suspect that this was a particularly excellent batch, brought out just for this occasion. And he took it and said, “this is my Blood, shed for you.”

There’s a version of the Prayer of Thanksgiving that we say during ordinary time that really captures the holy physicality of this sacrament. Just before ordaining the elements, the minister prays, “And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

When determining how his people would eternally remember him, I don’t think Jesus chose to use bread and wine on a whim. He didn’t have some sort of arrangement with Welch’s or Franzia, nor did he simply grab whatever was laying around the house. To be sure, it’s no coincidence that bread and wine are simple and common household items, but they are also delicious, skillfully prepared, and point to an Incarnate God, a bloody sacrifice, and a united Church.

The gifts of God, for the people of God.

We Killed Him

This reflection originally appeared in the Liberti Church/Restoration Living Lent Prayerbook. If you haven’t already, you should check out this great resource – it’s not too late!

In the days leading up to Christmas this year, one of my favorite snippets of scripture kept running through my mind: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV). I smile whenever I think about this sentence, and the beautiful meaning that it conveys – the eternal God of the universe put on skin, moved into the neighborhood, and lived a messy, grace-filled life. What good news!

But Christmas is long over, and lately I can’t get this revision out of my head: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…and we killed him.” God became a person, and we said, “Go home.” He tried to show us Himself, and we said, “No thanks.” He fed and healed us and we said, “We don’t need you.” He gave us a glimpse of redemption and we said, “You are not our King.”

I try not to think about this stuff too much because it bums me out – these thoughts are hard because they require real honesty about the part of the Gospel story that isn’t good. I’m partial to the “practice-resurrection” Christianity that sets its gaze on the risen Lord and the empty tomb, instead of the cross. I confess my sins on Sunday and go about my week. Those few moments of honesty and repentance are enough for me, usually.

"Exodus" by Marc Chagall, 1952

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall, 1952

But thank God for Lent, because those few moments are not actually enough – not after what we did to Him. Thank God that those few moments are drawn out to forty days, where I am reminded that before that glorious empty tomb, there was a bloody cross. Thank God for this season that makes me think about who I am (really) and who God is (really). Thank God that Lent isn’t about finite self-loathing or wallowing in guilt, but existential honesty.

As we draw closer to Good Friday, I invite you to dwell in this uncomfortable honesty. I invite you to acknowledge the startling truth that just as his friends and neighbors betrayed and rejected him, we too betray and reject Christ everyday in our thoughts, words, and actions. I invite you to repent. Because it is only through true repentance that we may move on from that ugly cross and joyfully embrace the empty tomb.