Monthly Archives: March 2013

Christ the Gardener

In one of the Dominican friar’s cells in San Marcos Convent in Florence, Fra Angelico painted a haunting fresco based on John 20: 11-18.

After having told Peter and John that the tomb was empty, Mary of Magdala returned to the tomb. Two angels there asked her why she is weeping. “Because they have taken away my Lord…”

Dismayed, she turns asks a man she encounters, “Where have you put him?”

It is Jesus but she doesn’t recognize him until he calls her by name. She thinks he is the gardener.

In Fra Angelico’s fresco Jesus is a gardener, carrying a hoe over his shoulder.

Could Jesus really be a gardener?

Could he be the one risen one who seeks to restore the garden of our souls, as he gives new life and hope to Mary of Magdala?

Could he be the risen one who seeks to restore the garden of our world, torn by death and violence, so that we might live more like our first parents in the Garden of Eden?

Let us open our hearts to the gardener who prunes, fertilizes, and waters us by his death and resurrection.

Let us commit ourselves to live as gardeners of this world, seeking to bring integrity, peace, and compassion to our broken world.

Perhaps that’s how we can celebrate the risen Lord, the gardener.


There is a longer essay by Father Peter Schineller, S.J., on his website, here. He notes that a Albrecht Dürer engraving of the encounter of Jesus with Mary of Magdala also presents Jesus as a gardener.


The Great Sabbath Rest and The Harrowing of Hell

Holy Saturday is the one day in the Catholic liturgical calendar where there is no liturgy. It is a day of rest, remembering how the women waited till Sunday to go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. It is “the great Sabbath rest.”

The icon of the resurrection most used by the Orthodox Church is Jesus in “hell,” opening the gates so that Adam, Eve, John the Baptist, and others might share in the glory of His resurrection and experience fully the joy of God’s presence, Heaven.

In the west, especially since the Middle Ages, the image has most often been Christ rising from the tomb, with the soldiers falling to the ground.

However, there is a beautiful image of Jesus “harrowing hell” by Fra Angelico and his followers in one of the friar’s cells in the Convento San Marcos in Florence.


Christ, triumphant, has broken down the door to the cave and brought light to those awaiting his coming. He reaches out as if to pull them out of the darkness into light.

An ancient homily, used in the Holy Saturday office of Vigils, says:

 …the Lord sleeps in His fleshly nature,; in the netherworld he is wakening those who have slept for ages.

…He wills to visit those who sit in the dark shadows of death… The Lord takes Adam’s hand and says: “Awake, sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will give you light….

I bid you: awake, sleeper! I did not create you to lie bound in hell. Arise from the dead, for I am life to those who have died. Rise up, work of my hands, my likeness, made in my image. Rise. Let us go hence.

We rest, today, waiting to celebrate the risen Lord. But also we wait to celebrate the promise of life eternal – which begins now. That means respect for our bodies and for all creation.

Today, the Greek and Russian churches celebrate St. John Climacus. Though a severe ascetic, he wrote:

How can I run away from my body, when it will be my companion at the resurrection?

To celebrate Christ, who died and was raised up from the dead, is thus to celebrate the call of creation to be holy. We are called not to despise creation, but to celebrate the work of God in Jesus who wishes to restore to us and to all creation the holiness and goodness with which God endowed it, seeing it as “very good.” (Genesis 1: 31)

Were you there?

“Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?” is a haunting spiritual which is often sung on Good Friday. It is a challenge to us: Do we accompany our Lord in His passion, death, and resurrection?

DSC00590Often donors were depicted in scenes from the life of Christ, as a way to recall their patronage. But there is an image of the Pietà, Jesus taken down from the Cross and placed in his mother’s arms, that expresses not patronage, but devotion, and the desire to be with Christ crucified.

The most famous is Michelangelo’s in St. Peter’s Basilica. But I was moved more by Michelangel’s late work, the unfinished Pietà in the Cathedral Museum of Florence. The upper image, Nicodemus, is a self-portrait. Michelangelo felt a need to put himself into the sculpture as he was, in his later life, trying to life more fully his faith.

But there is another question for Good Friday, which reverses the spiritual. We hear it in the words of Jesus on the Cross, citing Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Are you here, God, in the midst of the suffering?

There are two paintings that try to answer this question.

chagall3The first comes from an unlikely source, Marc Chagall, the Lithuanian Jewish artist, who surprisingly painted not a few images of Jesus Crucified. One of his most famous, The White Crucifixion, is in the Art Institute of Chicago. The Crucified Jesus, his loins clothed in a prayer shawl, is surrounded by scenes of the persecution of the Jewish people:  burning homes, fleeing people. He, a Jew, sees in the crucified Jesus the suffering of the Jewish people.

For me, as a Christian, it reminds me that when anyone suffers, especially the sufferings of persecuted peoples, like the Jews, God also suffers.

The second is one that I have not seen: Matias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. (Paul Hindemith wrote an opera and the symphonic work Mathis der Mahler to recall the agony of Grünewald painting in the midst of the Reformation.)

grunewaldcrucif1The altarpiece was painted in the early sixteenth century for the chapel of the Antonine monks who cared for the sick, in a hospital for people suffering from ergotism. If you look closely the body of Christ is covered with sores; these are like the sores the patients bore on their bodies.

Those suffering patients could see Christ suffering with them. Christ Jesus is not far from us in our sufferings. He accompanies us in our suffering.

These two paintings express what the psalmist wrote in Psalm 22: 25, whose first words Jesus prayed on the Cross:

[The Lord] has never despised
nor scorned the poverty of the poor.
From them he has not hidden his face,
but he heard the poor when they cried.

God is here, among the suffering. Are we there?

Washing the feet of the poor

IFAlmost immediately after Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was announced as Pope Francis, photos began appearing of a priest kneeling and washing the feet – of women in a maternity hospital, of young people in what may have been a drug rehabilitation center. And today Pope Francis will visit a center for rehabilitation of young offenders and wash their feet.

Then, on the day of his inauguration, Pope Francis stopped the pope-mobile to descend to bless and kiss a seriously disabled man held in the arms of two young people.

I remembered a talk Jean Vanier gave in 1998, which you can read here. It deserves a prayerful reading today (and every day.)

“Jesus is always surprising us,” said Jean Vanier. “He doesn’t like it when we fall into little habits. He shakes us up.”

A few years ago I was leading the Holy Thursday celebration in the town of Vera Cruz (which mans “True Cross”). The people were reluctant to come forth to have their feet washed. Finally we got twelve boys.

These were not manicured feet, washed beforehand for a church ceremony. They were kids’ feet – dirty. So too much have been the feet of Jesus’ apostles.

But what Jean Vanier emphasizes and what I think is critical about the washing of the feet, especially among the poor, is that this is revolutionary because it shakes up the social hierarchy and calls us to descent, to take the downward path.

As Vanier notes, Peter doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet because that’s not the way the hierarchy works. But Jesus has another message. In Jean Vanier’s words,

“If I cannot show that I want to be your servant, then you are no longer my friend. Because you must understand that message turns everything upside down.” Those who are at the bottom come up to the top.

In our world, those who are impoverished, those who suffer disabilities, those who are marginalized because they are young, or imprisoned, or addicted receive a message that they are worth little or nothing.

But the message of Jesus, washing feet, is to give all a sense that they are loved, that they have an inestimable worth.

Vanier spoke of a blind and deaf young man in one L’Arche community who only wanted to die. “We want him to move from a feeling of being no good to a sense of his value and his worth.”

How did Vanier and the community do this?

They bathed him with love, with tenderness.

And so Vanier suggested that, in washing the feet, Jesus is telling us a lesson on how to be children of God, sisters and brothers in Christ, how to be a Church of the Poor.

“[Jesus] want is to discover the Church as Body where each one is important.”

“He is reminding us that henceforth we must look downward.”

“…we must be, all of us together, servants of one another – serving each other, empowering each other….we are there to serve each other, to love each other.”

Today I’m going out to the village of Plan Grande to distribute Communion during their Celebration of the Word. Two village leaders will lead the Celebration of the Word and the Washing of the Feet. I asked to also be able to wash feet.

It’s the least I can do – washing feet and then distributing Him who washed feet.

That’s what our faith is about.

If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,
you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
For I have set you an example,
that you should also do as I have done.
John 13: 14-15

A word to the weary

The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue,
That I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Isaiah 50: 4
(New American Bible)

Mi Señor me ha dado
una lengua de discípulo,
para saber decir al abatido
una palabra de aliento.
Isaías 50, 4
(Biblia de Nuestro Pueblo)

My Lord has given me
the tongue of a disciple
so that I may know how to say to the dejected
a word of encouragement.
(My translation of Biblia de Nuestro Pueblo)

I get attached to specific translations – and not always the same one. I find that New American Bible’s translation of Isaiah 50:4 speaks to me more than other translations (in English, Spanish, and Latin), though the Spanish Biblia de Nuestro Pueblo comes closest.

God gives the Suffering Servant a well-trained tongue, the tongue of a disciple. God heals us of our faulting words, our twisted tongues, our feeble attempts to speak.


So that we can speak to the weary, the dejected, the disheartened, those crushed in spirit.

Say what?

A word of encouragement, a word that will rouse them, wake them up, shake them up, give them the courage and the conviction to live.

How many need to hear that type of word – the people in the countryside here in Honduras crushed by poverty and violence, and looked down upon by many; the people who are out of work throughout the world; those who are missing loved ones who’ve died; those who have lost a sense of direction for their lives; those who are disheartened by rigidity and lack of compassion in structures of church and state; those who lack someone who shows them that they are loved and have a dignity that no one can take from them.

That is what God offers us and what Jesus shows us in the Gospels.

It’s what we are called to do.

There is so much sense of worthlessness and of powerlessness that I see here in Honduras (and even, sad to say in the Church), that we need to be people who know how to speak words of love, of tenderness, of encouragement to rouse people to live.

We need to rouse people with the words of St. Irenaeus that “The glory of God is the human person fully alive” and rouse the poor with Archbishop Oscar Romero’s re-statement of Irenaeus: “The glory of God is the poor person full alive.”

I believe that is an essential part of what the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus ought to be for us –  a word that rouses us to life.

Death is not the final word.

To life!

Uselessly spending our strength

Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and, for nothing, uselessly spent my strength…
Isaiah 49: 4

 The first readings for most of Holy Week come from the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah. Today’s reading from Isaiah 49 often sustains me.

In ministry – as well as in many other parts of our lives – we often feel as if we are achieving nothing, “uselessly spending our strength.”

Part of this. I think, is due to our US emphasis on achievement, on proving ourselves by what we do.

Part is due to our desire to not have wasted our time.

But, I think, in some ways, that it’s a question of our spirituality: It’s all about us and how we feel about what we do.

No, it isn’t, God reminds us.

God works with us, with our failures and our half-baked efforts. And we never will know all that God does through our actions that do not show immediate results. I have experienced this many times. Once someone told me how much something I said helped him; yet I don’t remember saying what he said I did.

For me, that means that I must be faithful in the little things: in the way I treat the people I minister with, in how I use my time, in how I prepare my presentations for people. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “A saint preaches sermons by the way he walks and talks, the way he picks up things and holds them in his hands.”

But we still crave for results.

But God calls us for more than this. He calls us to be “light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49: 6).

That’s not something we can plan or measure.

But it calls for faithfulness in little things – done in love.


Jesus, Justice, and the Poor

“I have called you for the victory of justice.”
Isaiah 42: 6

“The poor you always have with you.”
John 12: 8

 The Gospel for Monday of Holy Week is Mary anointing the feet of Jesus in Bethany.

Judas complains about the price of the nard Mary used. The evangelist explains that he did this not because he cared for the poor but because of his greed: he was a thief.

But Jesus answers “Leave her alone…. The poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

This verse has been one of the most misused and misunderstood.

The verse is a quotation of Deuteronomy 15:11 where it is a statement of fact. Any good Jew would have realized this and seen that the verse is an indictment of the people; just a few verses before (Deuteronomy 15:4) the scriptures declare: “You should have no poor in your midst.”

Indeed, Deuteronomy 15: 7 states bluntly: “If there is anybody among your brothers… do not harden your heart or close your hand, but be open-handed and lend him all that he needs.”

The Lord truly, as the Servant Song of Isaiah puts it, calls for the victory of justice – a justice that is a right relation with God and with our sisters and brothers, especially the poor.

Charity and justice and grateful generosity to God and others are the ways we can live in the justice of God – not making excuses for not sharing with the poor.


Christ emptied Himself

In March 2006 I went with a group from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames on a service trip to New Orleans. There something happened that changed my life and led me to Honduras.

One day we were emptying pout a flooded house as the African-American woman who had lived there watched with a great tranquility.

Reflecting on that event, I’ve often explained that “emptying that home emptied something in me.”

Driving out yesterday to help with a retreat in Candelaria, Concepción, I realized that my way of speaking about the event is but a reflection of the second reading from the Palm Sunday liturgy, Philippians 2, 6-11:

[Jesus] emptied Himself,
taking on the condition of a slave.

So often we have exalted images of God, a God of power and might. But God appears to us in Jesus, first of all as a poor infant, born in a Bethlehem stable, and he grows up in Nazareth, the boondocks of Galilee.

But that isn’t enough. He dies on the Cross, the fate of revolutionaries and rebels.

We have a vulnerable God, who accompanies us in our vulnerabilities, sharing “our joys and hopes, our griefs and anxieties” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 1). He was born poor, lived poor, died poor – and rose to save us and give hope to the poor.

And today, we still can experience the vulnerable presence of Christ today: in the poor and in the Eucharist. Who are more vulnerable than the poor and what is more vulnerable than the Host.

Jesus comes among us as a vulnerable person, but also as one who reaches out to the vulnerable and suffering, as well as to those at the margins of society.

This Holy Week can we remember our vulnerability and also reach out to the vulnerable.

In this way, I believe, we can follow the admonition of St. Paul in Philippians 2: 5:

Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.

Toribio Protector of the indigenous

The saint who is celebrated today, Toribio [Turibius] of Mongrovejo, is not well-known outside of Perú and some parts of Latin America, though he was the second archbishop of Lima.

He was named a bishop, even though he was not a priest but a professor of law in Spain. Yet when he arrived in Perú, he took his pastoral duties seriously, spending most of his first seven years visiting his immense archdiocese. This was the first of his four pastoral visits to the widely scattered parishes.

Through his efforts, a catechism was written in two indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua, as well as Spanish. He also tried in some ways to protect the native peoples from the avarice of the Spaniards.

There is one story, related in Paul Burns’ Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Condensed Edition, which strikes me as indicative of the independent spirit of Saint Toribio.

He had opened a seminary but ran into conflicts with the Spanish viceroy and the civil council over this effort. In one case, the viceroy objected to the order of the archbishop that seminarians and professors should leave their weapons at the door of the seminary. This was only resolved when the king took the side of Saint Toribio.

What strikes me is his commitment to be present to the people, learning Quechua, visiting the whole diocese, even staying in the houses of the poor when there was no presbytery.

We, the Church, should imitate this commitment and strive to be present to all, especially those most in need.


Our Mother of Sorrows

Today, the Friday before Holy Week, some countries celebrate the feast of our Lady of Sorrows.

Madre Dolorosa

Madre Dolorosa

The feast resonates in my heart for a number of reasons. First of all, in the mid-1960s, I volunteered a bit at the church of Our Mother of Sorrows in a poor, African-American section of Philadelphia, helping a teacher and even playing the organ at some Sunday Masses. My commitment to justice was nourished in that church.

Today we are reminded that Mary, faithful Mother, shared in the sufferings of her Son and all the suffering peoples of the world. She is a model of the compassion of God for the poor and suffering.

On December 1, 1977, Monseñor Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, spoke these inspiring words on Mary, which we might reflect on this coming Holy Week:

Even when all despaired
at the hour when Christ was dying on the cross,
Mary, serene,
awaited the hour of the resurrection.
Mary is the symbol
of the people who suffer oppression and injustice.
Theirs is the calm suffering
that awaits the resurrection.
It is Christian suffering,
the suffering of the church,
which does not accept the present injustices
but awaits without rancor the moment
when the Risen One will return.