Agnus Dei

In Room 10-A of the Prado Museum in Madrid you will find among other wonderful things, a painting by the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán that is commonly known as Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God.  It is a very famous painting, perhaps you have seen it there at the museum or in reproductions.  Or you may have seen one of the five other versions of this subject that Zurbarán painted, like the one hanging at the San Diego Museum of Art.  El Prado, however, says its version is the finest of them all, and I believe them.

The painting is simple: a wooly merino lamb is lying on its side on a grey slab of some kind, facing to the left, as the viewer observes the picture.  The Lamb has horns, elegantly curved, that look as though they could some day be made into shofars, the horn that is sounded to mark the end of Yom Kippur.  All four of its feet are bound together above the fetlock with two strands of a cord of some not-too-heavy kind: the knot is not visible.  With its feet tied together, the animal’s back makes a kind of hump, lying there on the slab, that looks as though it could be the profile of a mountain ridge if the painting was a landscape.  The left eye of the lamb (the only one we can see) is open, pale eyelashes delicately lined in; and we can see that the lamb’s gaze is directed down, past its pink nose, at the grey slab on which it lies, as if in resignation.  There is no blood shown in the painting; we are to understand that the lamb is alive, but that its destiny is sealed.  Light shines down on the lamb from the upper left at a relatively high angle, so that only a little shadow is thrown, although beyond the pool of light that bathes the lamb, all is darkness.  Behold the Lamb of God.

Zurbarán did not give the painting its name, per se.  As I understand it, some of the versions do contain inscriptions, and the one in Santa Barbara includes a faint halo over the lamb’s head.  But at the Prado there is nothing depicted on the canvas but the lamb – no explicit religious iconography - so that a viewer could suppose the painting is intended simply as a still life of the animal.  Such a viewer, would, I feel quite certain, be missing the point.  The painter is saying much more with this simple image than he can accomplish with only the strokes of his brush.  Behold the Lamb of God.

When John the Baptist announced Jesus’ arrival with these words, “Behold the Lamb of God,” he was, I think, inspired to say more about Jesus with those few words than the words themselves indicate.  And what could he possibly have thought he meant when he said that Jesus “takes away the sin of the world”?  Jesus had just wandered in from the desert; did John think that he would be driven out there again, like the ancient scape-goat, to bear the people’s sins for them?  Was he thinking of the Passover lamb, whose blood was smeared on the doorposts to protect the children of Israel?  Did he have some mystic insight into the vision of the apocalyptic lamb who sits upon the throne that had not yet been given to St. John the Divine?

And what do we think it means, that Jesus came to take away the sin of the world?  Shouldn’t we at least test the claim, made so long ago?  If Jesus’ mission was to take away the sin of the world, then he must not have done a very good job of it.  Is sin any less pervasive than it now than it was in his day? Aren’t things, in fact, worse today than they were then, at least if you want to take a measurement anywhere I can see?

What metric are we to use to evaluate the effectiveness of Jesus’ ministry to take away the sin of the world?  If John the Baptist was right, how can we demonstrate it to be so?  “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says.  But, so what?  What does that mean?  And what does it matter?

Sitting at my desk, I feel compelled, if I am to talk to you of this, to explore the question of that metric by which to demonstrate that Jesus has, indeed, taken away the sin of the world.  I think if the claims about which I preach are true, I should be able to do this.  If I am going to call him the Lamb of God, I should know what I am talking about.  I should be able to measure this somehow.  Maybe I have just not put my mind to it before.  Maybe someone has already worked this out and posted it on the Internet?  I think this could be done; I think it should be done, as I sit there at my desk, and begin to think of a chart, or a table that I could use to measure God’s success rate at taking away the sin of the world.  My computer is running, and I have sheets of paper before me, and sharpened pencils, and an open Bible, and I am thinking, and thinking, and thinking.  But it is late afternoon, and I become drowsy, and the task is harder than it should be.

People sometimes dream that they can enter into paintings – you know, walk along the Seine with Seurat, or, row among the water lilies with Monet, or check the drooping time with Dalí.  What would I do if I could inhabit that masterpiece of Zurbarán’s in a dream for a little while, if I could shrink down and crawl up into the canvas, and hear the slow breath of the lamb, smell the heavy odor of his wool, and feel the lanolin on my fingers as I reach down to stroke his coat?

The impulse, of course, is to untie him.  But perhaps that is why the knot is out of sight, so that I will not be tempted.  And in my dream, I have no knife with which to cut the cord.  What am I to do?  Clearly the lamb is in trouble, but I cannot save this lamb.  Is there anything I can do for him?  It would seem that there is nothing he can do for me.

So in my dream, I lie down beside the lamb.  I have no shoes on, and perhaps no shirt, I don’t know.  I know that I can smell him, and I can hear him breathing.  He is smaller than a Labrador.  I put my arm out to touch him, and he does not shudder, but I can feel the steady, slow rhythm of his side, as he draws breath in and out, for now.  He is not struggling.  He shifts his eyes to look at me; and his gaze, that looked so sad to me before, is gentle, not frightened.

Very quickly, a sensation is coming over me.  For I had thought I had entered this painting to discover something about the lamb.  But now that I hear his breathing, and feel the rise and fall of his breast, and smell the musty odor of his coat, I sense that I am beginning to know something new about myself, not about the lamb.  I am moved, as I lie beside this lamb, all of a sudden, for I seem to know myself in some rich complexity as both a beloved child of God whose blessings are many, and as a sinner whose foolishness is now flashing before my eyes, as if it was my destiny that was sealed here on this slab, not his.  He is the one who is bound, but now I can see myself for who I am – marvelously made, but oh so prone to wander.  I am looking into the tired eyes of this condemned lamb, lying on my side, staring into his calm eyes, my hand stroking his soft wool, and along with all my blessings, I can see everyone I have ever hurt, and every stupid thing I have ever done, and every good deed I left undone.  And I feel as though I can hear some choir singing a litany just for me: “Have mercy upon him, miserable sinner.”  The choir is singing for me, I know, not angrily, but in some recitation of the truth.

Bound as he is this way, as I face the lamb in my dream, I can only reach out to him across his fettered hooves.  But something in me needs to be closer.  So I get up and crawl around him to a part of the painting that is obscured from view, and I lie down behind the lamb, spooning, embracing the wooly hump of his back with my torso and arms so I can hold him close to me, and reach under his horns and scratch him soothingly behind the ears.  This way, the pace of my breathing can match his slow breath, and you would think that I am cradling him thus to calm the frightened lamb.  But he is not frightened, and I am the one who is becoming calm, as the choir’s singing fades away, and I hear the echo of mercy more clearly than the accounting of my sins.  And I think that the lamb does not fall asleep, but I do, with a restfulness that I have never known before.  And if I am dreaming within my dream, I cannot tell what the inner dream is.  But a new chorus is beginning to rouse me: Behold the Lamb of God.

Because we have been trained by cash registers, credit cards, and spread sheets – which often inspire nightmares, but seldom dreams – we find it hard to escape the idea that the cries of John the Baptist are claims that must be quantified, tested, audited, and reported.  But that is not really how faith works.  It’s not how redemption works.  It’s not how salvation works.

You believe – you become a person of faith – because you enter into this vision of this lamb, and confronted by him, you see, you know to be true, things that you did not know to be true before.  You see what a sinner you are, and yet here is the lamb, bound before you, and already you know that he has taken away your sin and the sin of the world, and you discover that you can now get on with being marvelously made.

Redemption is not a mystic transaction within the economy of sin; it is a living encounter with this weak and helpless lamb, whose power is nevertheless greater than any other power in the universe.  It is the drop to your knees when you decide to reach out to touch this lamb, to love him, and to try to match your breath to his, which, you find, is stronger than it should be for a lamb who appears to be doomed.

And salvation is not wrought by war-weary angels who battle on our behalf with a dragon, (although the angels have surely fought their battles).  But the salvation of our souls, our lives, our all, is accomplished by this small lamb: tied up and undoubtedly headed for death.  And to be in his presence, thus bound, is to discover that it must be so, for he must go where we will some day go, to mark the path that leads through the grave and gate of death and beyond into a new life prepared for all who love him.

Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sin of the world.

It turns out that this claim, hangs not on my ability to provide a table of sins forgiven, erased, or eradicated.  It turns out to be an invitation, not only to behold, but to encounter, to embrace the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  He was sent for you and for me – for our sakes and for all – to give his life as a ransom for many. 

It is already accomplished, already done, it is finished.  All that is required is to behold this lamb, to come to him, and to take him as your savior.

 

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

15 January 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 15, 2017 .

A Ready Eye

There are people in the world who hate the light. They moan about the light, throw their hands up in the air and shake their heads about it. They dodge it whenever they can, preferring to skitter around in the darkness, even if that means an occasional bump on the shins. They’ll tell anyone they meet about their loathing of the light, about how the light is the enemy, how the light ruins everything. They’ll pick themselves up and move far away, deeper into the forest or further out into the desert just to try and escape that ever-present, always disappointing, perpetually troublesome light.

Now these people are not mole people. They’re not cave dwellers or orcs or goths. They’re not particularly maudlin or pessimistic. These people are astronomers, amateur astronomers to be exact, astronomers who don’t have access to giant telescopes in an observatory somewhere in the middle of the deepest, blackest wilderness. These are the astronomers who are using their own telescopes, slogging them out into their own backyards, using their own two arms to swing a galaxy or nebula into view, and struggling every night against the light. Porch lights, street lights, automatic motion-detecting lights, lights from cars, lights from airplanes, and most of all – worst of all, the greatest culprit of all – lights from cities, the soft, nearly unnoticeable glow that hovers just over the horizon, turning the sky from a sacred, heavenly blackest black to a muddy, reddish brown. Light is all around, and when you are trying to pinpoint one beam of it streaming down from far, far away at 299,792,458 meters per second, ambient light is the enemy. When you’re trying to see starlight, the blacker the viewfinder, the better.

I experienced this in person over Thanksgiving when I was visiting my husband’s family in North Carolina. My father-in-law is one of those brilliant amateur astronomers. He and my mother-in-law live in a small town, very purposefully, so that while the light from the nearest city can sometimes be a bother, it doesn’t make nighttime viewing impossible. When we were there in November, we went out every night, and every night my father-in-law went through the same routine – he would haul out the telescope and set up a table for all of his different eyepieces, and then he would make sure that all of the lights on the back of the house were turned off. We were in as dark an environment as we could possibly muster.

Or so I thought. But there was one more level of darkness, a deeper kind of black that my father-in-law explained to me on our first night in the backyard. Once, when I stood up from gazing into the telescope, he told me to close my viewing eye, even to put my hand over the lid, while he changed out the eyepiece. By doing so, I was keeping my pupil dilated as much as possible. Instead of opening my eye between viewings, and letting that pernicious light from the next town over or the neighbor’s front porch run right into my retina, I was keeping my eye primed and ready, so that when I looked back into the eyepiece, my eye could take it all in right away. I was keeping my eye in the dark so that it could see all of the light the eyepiece had to offer – the tiniest pair of twin stars, the fuzziest blot of a nebula, the subtlest shade of red that colored a particular planet. By keeping my eye in the dark, I found that I could see much, much more.

Now, I would imagine that the wise men didn’t have to worry too much about light pollution. One would think that if you wanted to find the dark in the first-century, the dark would be fairly easy to find. But for the magi, using only their own two eyes to view the workings of the heavens, finding that true darkness was still important. They were astronomers, after all – darkness was mother’s milk to them, darkness was gift and blessing. I can see them now, standing in their own backyard, going through their own nighttime routine – they’d set up the table for the astrolabe and the quadrant, and then carefully extinguish the candles in the windows, close the back door to keep the firelight inside, and ask the gardener for the thousandth time to please, please, for the love of all that is holy could he please put out the garden lamps for just a couple of minutes. I’m sure they would sigh when the lights from the heart of Babylon lit up the night too brightly. And who knows what they thought when they neared the city of Jerusalem? All of this light! Cover your eye, Caspar, use your hand, keep your eye in the blessed, blessed dark.

And because they did keep their eyes in the blessed, blessed dark, they were able to truly see. They saw this new light, this strange wild star, that didn’t do what it was supposed to do, that didn’t go where it was supposed to go, that wasn’t tethered to any map that the magi knew.* They kept their eyes in the dark so that their pupils were as wide open as possible, fully able to take in what the night sky had to offer them. They kept their eyes in the dark so that they could be ready to see the miracle right in front of them.

Now, if you had asked the wise men all those centuries ago if they were haters of the light, I’m sure they would have said no. Astronomers aren’t haters of the light, they would have protested. Astronomers love the light. We love the light so much we spend hours looking for light we can barely find. We spend a lifetime watching the light moving towards us from a thousand suns that died a thousand lifetimes ago. We love the light – we name it, record it, honor and celebrate it. We love the light – it’s just that we know which light to love. We know which light to look for, which light to revere. We look for the light that is coming into the world, the light that shines into the darkness and will not be overcome. We look for the light that marks the place where God’s heart lies, where God takes on hands and feet and curly brown hair so that we can know and feel how carefully each of the hairs of our own heads is counted. We look for the light that shows the glory of the Lord, born in a manger. This is the light that draws us here. This is the light that makes us kings stream from far-away nations to lay gifts at the feet of a poor child. This is the light that puts all other lights to shame. The lights of Babylon or Jerusalem or the gardener’s burning lamps are fine, but we have sought the true light, and we will do all we can to keep our eyes ready to see the continuing miracle of that one, true light.

I don’t know about you, but I want to look for the light like this. I want to seek this one, true light. I want to see it at its rising, I want to follow it on its journey, I want to see where it stops over the incarnate Word and be overwhelmed with the joy of the magi. I want to have ready eyes to see the coming of Christ in the world. But so many times my eyes are distracted by other lights. You know the lights I mean – buy this thing and you’ll be happy, pray this way and you’ll be rewarded, just keep moving and eventually you’ll find peace. We can so easily find ourselves blinded by lights we aren’t really looking for, our pupils turned to pinpricks by the dazzling rays of other, less holy desires. And it is hard to see the gift of the one, true, long-looked-for light when our eyes are not quite ready.

But tonight we celebrate the true gift of these wonderful, wise men – that they were also wonderful, wise astronomers. And they knew that when you are looking for the true light, you need to just close your eye first. Close your eye. Cover it with your hand. Get your vision ready. Go into your closet and shut the door, and let your eye adjust to the sacred darkness. Close your eye first; be still, and let all of those other lights fade away. Close your eye and be ready. Come here to this quiet, dark place, where we have our own nightly routine – where we set a table with a plate and a cup and all of the tools we will need, and still our hearts and ready our eyes to see the light that is shining into the world. You can leave one eye open so that you don’t bump your shins too often, but come here with one eye shut, primed and ready to find that light the moment it comes into view. Let the windows of your soul open up wide to let that light, the true light of Jesus Christ, with all the true joy and true prosperity and true peace that he brings, shine into your heart. Close your eye and be ready. And then arise, shine, you holy astronomers, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.

 

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

The Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

 

*Some of this language is borrowed from/influenced by the Godly Play stories for Advent.

           

Posted on January 11, 2017 .

What's in a Name?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”[i]

Act II, Scene II.  The scene is the Capulet’s Orchard, and Juliet asks this famous question from her balcony, born of frustration and love.  “What’s in a name?”

       “it is not hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man….

       … Romeo doff thy name;

And for that name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.”

What’s in a name?

Today we gather, not because it is New Year’s Day, and not because it used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision, but to rejoice in the Holy Name of Jesus.  And Shakespeare has perfectly framed the question of the day.  What’s in a name?  The question, for Christians, could also be said to be born of frustration and love.  From a certain angle, much of the Biblical record could be said to address this question.  That is to say, much of the Bible could be said to be about the matter of who God is and what God’s name is.  El, Elohim, Adonai, Jehovah, HaShem, – are all versions of names of God in the earlier Scriptures, where also, of course, are to be found the names of other competing gods: Amon, Asherah, Baal, Chemosh, Dagon, Molech are all mentioned.  As are the Greek gods Zeus, and Hermes, and Artemis.

If you frame the question of faith in terms of God’s name, the Bible is the story of discerning that possibly singular fact; and the assertion that God’s own people have struggled to keep track of God’s unutterable divine name, and therefore unable to remain faithful to God.  Look beyond the Bible, and the question of the name of God becomes vastly more complex.  Is God Allah?  Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva?  Something else altogether?  What’s in these names?

Every year, eight days after Christmas, we arrive at a new year, and at this unremarkable proclamation that “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  But what’s in a name?

It is so tempting to join Juliet in the very modern implications of her old question.  It’s not about the name, so let’s not quibble about what we call God, which only results in more careful definitions of what separates God’s creatures from one another, which surely must grieve the heart of God.  Let God doff his name, as Juliet wishes Romeo could.  Why allow semantics to cause so much grief?  “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;/ Thou art thyself though….”

But the church tells us that today is one of the most important feasts of the year, not to be trifled with, and thereby urges us to take more seriously the question of what’s in the name of Jesus, the implication being that the answer will amount to quite a lot.  Juliet’s question is interesting to us today precisely because it is pressing and insightful, and because the answer, for us, to what’s in a name, has profound meaning, even more than it did for her, despite our frequent desire to join her in dismissal of the question as mere semantics.

Because God wants us to know his name.

It was not always so that God wanted us to know his name, or to use it.  The Scriptures tell us that God preferred to robe himself in mystery and obscurity; and tradition suggests that God’s name should be nearly as un-utterable as his person was un-seeable.  By some point in history, the rabbis discerned that, out of reverence for the Holy One, God’s name should almost never be spoken aloud.  They knew how likely people are to misuse the divine name, and to substitute the true and living God for some other object of lustful desire in their lives: money, power, sex, for instance.  Nothing has changed.  The flip side of the question of the name of God, after all, is the tendency to chase after other gods, after idols - which include money, power, and sex - as well as graven images, or gods that go by other names.

And so an angel visits Mary, and Joseph, too; and instructs them both that the child that Mary will bear shall be called Jesus – the name is not optional.  And “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

The blessed Son of God, the incarnate Word, God-with-us is not shrouded in mystery and obscurity, he is given a name, and that name is Jesus.  And that name matters.  For the biblical problem – namely the question of who God is – has become a deeply vexing problem for our time.  Does God exist at all?  Wouldn’t we rather chase after idols?  Does it really matter what we call God?  These are questions with powerful answers, one way or another.  And while these questions can and should be answered with some sophistication and even finesse, those of us whose lives have been shaped by the angelic message, by the wondrous birth, and by the Cross and resurrection, might claim some confidence when it comes to the answer.  For God’s mission in his creation is accomplished by the person of his Son, and his name is Jesus.

It is difficult for many of us these days, however, to embrace this name, and all that comes with it.  We are sympathetic to Juliet’s point of view; we see how much damage has been done by insisting on this name or that; we know that God’s name has been weaponized so that it has ceased to sound like what it truly is: the name of love incarnate.  When the name of Jesus is thus deployed so that it divides rather than unites, so that it condemns rather than forgives, so that it spells out contempt rather than love, then it is a horribly disfigured name: misspelled, mispronounced, and wrongly written.

But when we give up the name of Jesus, then we forfeit an enormous measure of God’s revelation of God’s self: the inescapable recognition that God does not wish to remain in un-seeable obscurity, needs not relate to his people only through intermediaries, and desires that those who know him should share in the work of building up his kingdom by knowing intimately the person of its king.

And when we give up the name of Jesus, we forget that God’s saving work is not vague and non-specific, not a coating of sugar over the bitter portions of our lives.  No, the saving work of God – the redemption of his people from our sins – is accomplished not vaguely and uncertainly, but specifically by this person Jesus, his Son, who seeks to be known, embraced, and loved by each and every one of us to whom the joy of singing his name has been given!

As the scene unfolds beneath Juliet’s balcony, the girl presses her case with Romeo, in the line we hear earlier:

“… Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name, which is no part of thee

Take all myself.”

To which Romeo replies;

“Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d

Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

“Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d.”  Today we come to hear of love baptized – but in the older, more appropriate form for the God who made a covenant with Abraham: by circumcision, the sure sign of the covenant; and by the giving of a name, an ordinary name that would be forevermore extraordinary for its unfailing identification of the person of God.

For love itself can never in time be new baptized.  And the One who bears the name of Jesus was begotten to be love before there was either speech or language.  His name was given before the earth was made.  His work of saving love determined before time was.

Many there are who would stamp out the name of love to serve their own purposes, who would forget that Holy Name to advance the interests of their own idols, who would squelch the name of Jesus from our ears in favor of other names or no name at all.

But love demands that we remember its true name.  And although Shakespeare certainly never intended his love scene to be played this way, his words provide a useful reflection on this holy name of love, as we ponder what we are doing here on this feast day.  Romeo protests to Juliet: “O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

Juliet: “What satisfaction can’st thou have…?”

Romeo: “The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.”

Juliet: “I gave thee mine before thou did’st request it; And yet I would it were to give again.”

“I gave thee mine before thou did’st request it.”  The love of God was given to us long before we ever did request it, and that love has a name: not Romeo, not Juliet, but Jesus.  And whenever we speak that holy Name, may God grant us to hear him assuring us of the love forever enshrined in that name, that he does indeed grant to us again and again: the love of his only Son, begotten before all time, and given the name that is above every name, so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:10-11)

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

[i] All quotes from William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, in The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford, 1914, Act II, Sc. II

Posted on January 1, 2017 .