Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Congratulations!

Characters from "The Journey to the West" by Gene Luen Yang

It takes longer, I guess, for news to reach Alaska, but I was delighted to learn that Gene Luen Yang was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (aka the "Genius Grant") back in September. Gene is the author/illustrator of the graphic novels "American-Born Chinese" and "Boxers and Saints".   In "American-Born Chinese", Gene weaves together his own journey as an Asian-American immigrant struggling to find his place in America with the classic Chinese novel, "The Journey to the West", which features the Monkey-King and his companions the Buddhist monk Tripitika, Pigsy and Sandy. 

Chinese Opera Characters from "Boxers and Saints"
In his 2013 graphic novel, "Boxers and Saints" he tells the story of the Boxer Uprising at the turn of the 20th century 
in two separate but linked volumes.  The first is the story of how a young peasant became a leader of those fighting against the foreigners dominating Ching dynasty China as well as Chinese who had converted to Christianity.  The second is the story of a young woman who becomes a Christian and her eventual fate as a martyr. 

As a graphic novelists, who is both Chinese-American and a Catholic, Gene had a unique perspective that enabled him to sympathetically tell both the story of the Yihetuan - Militia United in Righteousness, (the"Boxers" of the title) and the "Saints", those Chinese Catholics who were put to death in the uprising (and eventually canonized as some of the 120 men and women declared to be "Martyr Saints of China" by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Back in 2007 Gene attended a retreat I did in Berkeley on praying with icons and we got to know each other a little bit.  Someday I hope we'll have a chance to visit again in person.  Maybe he'll come to Alaska.

In the meantime, congratulations, Gene!  I'm looking forward to seeing what you will be able to accomplish in 2017 and beyond! 
    

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Light in Our Darkness

Blessed Sara Salkahazi and Companion 

Today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist (also known as St.John the Theologian in the Christian East), one of the "Comites Christi" or 'companions of Christ' who are commemorated during the Octave of Christmas.

On this day we also remember a 20th century companion of Christ, Blessed Sara Salkahazi, who on this day in 1944 was martyred on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest alongside the Jewish women that she and members of her order, the Sisters of Social Service had given refuge.

Blessed Sara and others, such as Raoul Wallenberg and the founder of the Sisters of Social Service, Sr. Margit Slachta http://db.yadvashem.org/righteous/family.html?language=en&itemId=4044386 were truly light in the darkness of that terrible winter when the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators of the Arrow Cross, attempted to round up and execute the surviving  Jews of Budapest.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, the names of the Jewish companions of Blessed Sara are not known. In this relief print which I made last year at this time as part of a series of saints for the Year of Mercy, I chose to depict her with one of the women with whom she died.



In 2005 the Hungarian sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay created a moving memorial to all those who were executed on the embankment of the Danube.  They cast in iron some fifty pairs of shoes from the period and installed them, the various shoes of all styles and sizes representing the women, men and children put to death there.  The installation has become a place of remembrance and reflection.

You can also read more about Blessed Sara here:
 http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20060917_salkahazi_en.html

Monday, December 26, 2016

Take Away My Heart of Stone

"The Stoning of St.Stephen" by Jose Clemente Orozco
 As they stoned him, Stephen called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" He fell on his knees and cried aloud, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" and with that he died.  Saul was among those who approved of his execution.                                                              Acts of the Apostles 7:59-8:1

On this feast of St. Stephen, deacon and proto-martyr, I've been pondering this striking interpretation of his death by the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.  The artist juxaposes the figure of St.Stephen being stoned to death outside of the walls of Jerusalem, with the figure of Saul observing his death. Stephen and his attackers are unclothed.  His assailants have stripped down so that they can strike him uncumbered by their clothing.  The victim has been stripped of his clothing in order to make him even more defenseless and vunerable.

But the warm skin tones of victim and the angry mob are a sign of their shared humanity, even in a terrible and evil moment.  But what is truly terrifying is the figure of Saul himself, observing the scene unfolding before him.  Orozco has rendered Saul's garments in cold whites and blues; even his skin color is cold and pale.   Unlike the others, he is as motionless as a stone column.  This man, heartlessly looking on with approval is as hard and dangerous as the stones being thrown at Stephen, which is why I think that Orozco has painted Saul's garments the same color as the rocks the mob are wielding.

The Church Father, Fulgentius of Ruspe, in the second reading of the Office of Readings for this feast day, speaks of Stephen as a 'brave soldier who died in the service of his king' but points out that he serves the King of Love, whose only weapons are mercy and forgiveness.  The witness of Stephen, even to the shedding of his own blood, was to that divine love which prays for and forgives even enemies.

Thus, Fulgentius urges us to rejoice that St. Stephen and St. Paul (whose stony heart was shattered and made anew on the road to Damascus), are now friends and brothers in God's heavenly kingdom.

May our celebration of the birth of Jesus, through the prayers of St. Stephen warm our hearts and banish from them forever our icy judgment and condemnation of each other.

 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Nothing Is Impossible for God

The Nativity of Christ by Duccio (detai

Christ is Born! Glorify Him! 

For a number of years in the late 1970's I visited a young man named Chol Soo Lee* who was on Death Row at San Quentin penitentiary in California.  Because he was a condemned prisoner, he wasn't allowed to have physical contact with anyone. Instead, in handcuffs and chains,he was brought,into a cell with a thick glass window, where we talked over the phone for an hour (the limit of the visit.)  

One visit was particularly memorable, when I went to see him on Christmas.  After telling me he was glad that I had come to visit him, he told me that Christmas was a sad day, even for the prisoners who had visitors, because it was a reminder of their separation from their families.  But it was saddest for the prisoners whose families were unable to visit them.  

And then he said that even those prisoners who, due to circumstances were alone on Christmas, were fortunate compared to the inmates who were such bad men, who had committed such heinous crimes, that no-one could possibly care about them, love them and want to visit them.    

I've thought about what he said often over the past forty years, and I think that the birth of Jesus is both the sign and the promise that God's love encompasses every person, even those who are humanly impossible to love, people that no-one would ever want to love, like those inmates Chol Soo told me about.

But isn't that, at the deepest level, the reason we celebrate Christmas?  That in the person of Jesus, the Word of God, which is mercy, was born to be with and love and save every man and woman, even, (or perhaps especially) the most hateful, unloveable, and lost among us.  

For nothing is impossible for God. 

*Chol Soo Lee was granted a retrial and acquitted in 1982.  http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Chol-Soo-Lee-famed-for-murder-conviction-and-5963898.php


Thursday, December 22, 2016

To Foil Thy Foes With Joy



Detail of Serbian fresco of the Nativity of Jesus from Kosovo

In just a few more days we, in the West will be celebrating the birth of our Savior at Christmas.  One of the things I love to do during the Christmas season is to listen to Benjamin Britten's 'A Ceremony of Carols'. He composed it in 1942, during the darkest year of World War II, while he was crossing the Atlantic from the United States to England.   


My favorite movement in the entire piece is based on the fifth stanza from the poem "New Heaven, New War" by 16th century the Jesuit saint and martyr, Fr.Robert Southwell. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTyIP7m8Btg


These are the concluding stanzas of the poem:


5.   

This little babe, a few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake,
For in this weak, unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

6.

With tears he fights and wins the field;
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior's stead.

7.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
His crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels' trumps alarum sound. 

8. 

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil they foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.

Jesus was born into our world, not armed with the power to coerce and compel our obedience.  Rather, he came to us disarmed, wielding only the weapons of mercy and love, forgiveness and reconciliation, communion and peace.
  
As our world reckons power, Jesus had none to speak of.  Yet he overcame the power of sin in our lives and in our world with a different and deeper kind of power, the power of God’s unconditional, self-giving love and the inner transformation that love makes possible.

The  Russian Orthodox bishop, Anthony Bloom, wrote that those whose love is not defeated by suffering acquire the only power that matters: the unconditional power of forgiving those
who inflicted  suffering on them. 

This is the authentic power revealed to us in this tiny baby whose birth we celebrate.

Come, Lord Jesus!


Monday, December 19, 2016

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

 

In the Western Church we began singing the O antiphons last evening as the antiphon before and after the Magnificat.  Tonight we sang: O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.  Come and with outstretched arm redeem us.

.I had hoped to have finished this little Jesse Tree (which in the bottom left corner shows Moses and the Burning Bush) by the Fourth Sunday of Advent, but I completed it on the Fouth Sunday, which was just in time to look at it while praying tonight's antiphon.

 As always, praying with these images during Advent has given me it me much to ponder.  As we approach Christmas  I'm grateful to have brought this little Jesse Tree to completion.  A good project for this short season, since it is egg tempera on paper, which is much more quickly painted(at least for me) than an icon on a gessoed wooden panel.   

 
(Detail of the center image of the Mother of God and Jesus)

Friday, December 16, 2016

The God Who Suffers With Us



The inexplicable mystery of God, revealed in Jesus, is of a God who bears our burdens, laments our sorrows, who suffers with us, living and dying in silent solidarity with the poor and the powerless, with a love that is stronger than death itself.  

Confronted with the merciless violence and hatred of this world, His only weapon is mercy, kindness, friendship, forgiveness and sacrificial love.  He invites us to live and to be like Him, as best we can given our frailties, failures and fears.  

What we celebrate in just a few more days at Christmas is that He chose to be born as a child as vulnerable and needy and defenseless as these children evacuated from Aleppo earlier this week.  It is in their need and that of the millions of refugees who have fled this or so many other wars that we must seek Him, bind His wounds, comfort and console Him, welcome Him and give Him shelter.   

Despite the past six years of civil war in Syria and the pitiless destruction of Aleppo, I continue to believe that the merciful, meek, persecuted and peacemakers are truly blessed.   Despite the cynical triumph of the power of depraved and relentless violence this week, I believe that darkness will not have the last word, in our world, in that tortured country, in our hearts, now or in the future. 

Come, Lord Jesus.