Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lead Her Safely Into Eternal Life

My dear friend Sr. Helena Fox PBVM died yesterday in her convent in Cork, Ireland. Despite the distance between Juneau and Ireland we have had a lively and heartfelt correspondence for years. I miss her terribly already.

She was a Presentation sister and as luck or circumstance or providence would have it, I came across a Serbian fresco of this beautiful Marion feast just after my wife Paula called me with the news. I've been on retreat this week at Mt.Angel Abbey, which has mostly consisted of praying with the monks during their daily cycle of the Divine Office and lots of quiet time to reflect and pray.

But another way I pray is with icons. And so I'm praying now for my friend with this beautiful Serbian fresco from Kosovo which depicts the Presentation of Mary. According to an early tradition, Mary was presented by her parents to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem. She is shown as a little girl, leaving the protection and security of her parents and being brought to the gates of the Temple by a group of maidens with lighted candles.

In the psalms, the Temple, the dwelling place of the Most High is an image of heaven. Mary, is, of course, not only the type of the Church, but of every believer. And so I pray that my friend Helena, a Presentation Sister all her life, has finally completed her own presentation , body, soul and spirit, to the Lord, this day.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ochre de Rue


Last week my daughter Phoebe was in Seattle and while there she stopped by the art store to pick up some art supplies for her iconographer father. I gave her a list of materials unobtainable here in Juneau -- paper and paint, mostly. Although I paint mostly in egg tempera, using dry pigments (see open jar above). Earth colors, mostly yellow and red ochers make up most of the traditional palette for iconpainting, so I'm always on the lookout for earth colors in acrylic. Which is why I was happy to learn that Sennelier, the French colormen, were now manufacturing acrylic paints which include a variety of ochers and other earth colors. The catalog listed the names of the colors in English and simply out of curiousity, I added a color I'd never heard of, brown ocher to the list. And it turned out to be ochre de rue!

I'm probably the only person I know who would get excited about colored dirt but I was overjoyed when I looked at the label and, just above the staid "brown ocher" the words, 'ochre de rue'. That particular pigment and I go back a long way, to my first trip to Paris in 1992 to study with Fr.Egon Sendler at the Centre d'Etudes Russes. At the Centre, ochre de rue (literally 'ocher of the street') is used to finish the outer borders of icons. The pigment is mixed with linseed oil and wiped onto the plaster gesso, to create a beautifully transparent greenish-yellow glaze.


Thursday, June 14, 2012



OK, it wasn't exactly completed in time for Mary's month of May (which ended 14 days ago) but I was finally able to complete the icon of Mary and Jesus for our Mary Garden, as well as the shrine to house it. The cedar shrine (complete with shingled roof) has a couple of features adapted to life in Douglas, Alaska. The roof is held down with a couple of hurricane ties (due to the prevailing 60-70 mph winds that blow through here in the wintertime) and I've built shutters that can be closed and locked into place to protect the icon when the weather gets intense outside.

Now all that remains to be done is to secure the icon inside the shrine, attach it to a 4x4 and set it up in the garden.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Epitaphions! News at 11:00!

Apparently, according to a story in the news media, a Church historian from Italy has written an article claiming that prior to the French Revolution there were as many as 40 proported medieval "shrouds" (resembling the Holy Shroud of Turn) in various cathedrals and monasteries throughout Western Europe. The conclusion, (no surprise) is that the existance of these multiple medieval burial cloths demonstrate that the Shroud of Turin is a medival forgery.

Shroud of Turn
I'm only an artisan, not an academic but my guess as an iconographer is that the "astonishing 40 so-called burial cloths of Jesus" are in fact multiple 'epitaphion' icons . The epitaphion, which means, 'burial cloth' are used by Orthodox (and Eastern Catholic Christians that follow the Byzantine rite) on in the liturgy of Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The epitaphion is then reverently placed on the altar for the entire Easter season.   

Byzantine Epitaphion
circa 1300
These icons feature the figure of Jesus laid out in death on the burial cloth after being taken down from the cross. Some of them are painted on cloth, others are beautifully embroidered. It's quite possible that the prototype for this icon was the image of Jesus on the Shroud (now residing in Turin, Italy, but originally venerated and displayed in Constantinople).  

Icon of the Holy Face
(Contemporary Russian Icon)
Some believe that the relic of the shroud was usually displayed folded in such a way that only the face was visible and that this image of Christ's face may be the prototype of the icon of the Holy Face (Christ-Made-Without-Hands).
Because they are necessary for the Holy Week and Easter services, epitaphion icons can be found in all Orthodox and Eastern Catholic church, so it is not surprising that at least 40 would have made their way west, either from Sicily, Southern Italy, Greece or the Slavic lands during the Middle Ages. (I would expect a much larger number to have been in circulation during the medieval period, actually, given the brisk trade in relics and icons between Western Europe and the Middle East during the Crusades.)
But of course, "Christians Use Burial Cloth of Jesus Icon in Their Liturgy" is a lot less exciting than "Shroud of Turin is Proven to be a Fake".

Monday, June 11, 2012

Co-Workers and Friends

St.Barnabas Healing the Sick
(Paolo Veronese)
Today is the feast of St. Barnabas, the Jewish Christian from the island of Cyprus who was the companion of St. Paul in his mission to the Gentiles.  They weren't simply fellow workers, but friends, and their friendship survived rejection and mob violence, the conflict within the Church of over circumcision and the Mosaic law and even the attempts of the pagans of Lystra to honor them as gods, after Paul healed a crippled man in that town.

But their friendship ended suddenly when Barnabas proposed that they bring back John, also known as Mark, to join their missionary band.  Paul disagreed, arguing that Mark had failed to remain with them on their earlier missionary journey and had turned back at Pamphylia.  So they quarrelled and the disagreement was so intractable that Barnabas sailed for Cyprus (accompanied by Mark) and Paul left for Syria, accompanied by Silas.  (Which is the last we hear about Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles.)

Its sad to think about how often in the Church we part company (after quarrelling and disagreements) with our friends. Not because of a lack of faith (Paul and Barnabas continued to evangelize Jews and Gentiles and guide the new churches that they founded) but because of stubborness and wounded feelings. 

Sometimes fidelity to the truth as God gives us the wisdom to understand it requires an adamantine refusal to compromise, or to back down, but my guess is, that's pretty infrequent in most of our lives.  Usually (at least in my experience) when one probes a bit deeper, our conflicts with our fellow disciples of Jesus result from more from bruised pride, wounded feelings, disappointment, harsh judgments and stubborness.  Even when a lot is at stake, I know from personal experience as a card-carrying sinner,  that pride, hurt feelings, harsh judgments etc.. make it easy to personalize disagreement so as to lead to alienation and separation.

The challenge is to find a way to live and act with integrity and fidelity while never losing hold of the infinate value and dignity of the other, especially the other with whom we disagree and especially those with whom we disagree with the most deeply.    



Friday, June 8, 2012

Homily for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus

 This week I have been meditating on this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ in the light of the death on June 3rd ,2007 
of Fr. Ragheed Aziz Gazzi and his companions in Mosul, Iraq. 

Fr.Ragheed was a 35-year old Chaldean Catholic priest  
who was stopped by unknown gunmen when leaving the Mass, and shot to death with the three subdeacons who were accompanying him. 

 The wife of one of the subdeacons (the only survivor)
has testified that the one of the gunman shouted at Fr.Ragheed, ‘" I told you to close the church, why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?” (He had earlier been threatened with death unless he closed his church immediately and stopped celebrating Mass.) 

The subdeacon’s wife reported that Fr.Ragheed simply asked them, “How can I close the house of God?” .

 In the weeks before his death, Fr.Ragheed had spoken of,
“the great value of Sunday, the day that we meet the Risen Lord, the day of unity and of love between His community,
the day of support and help”. 

 He was quoted as saying:“Without Sunday, without the Eucharist the Christians in Iraq cannot survive”.

On this solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, I can’t help but recall the heroic witness unto death of Fr.Ragheed and his companions,  because his words and example are a vivid reminder to us that without Sunday, without the eucharist, we cannot survive as disciples of Jesus. 

 We remember on this day especially, that as members of Christ’s Body we cannot survive without the Eucharist because every Sunday we encounter the Risen Lord
in the precious and indispensible gifts of his Body and Blood

Every Sunday gathered at this altar, we remember that the divine love, forgiveness and reconciliation, made present  under the humble signs of bread and wine are more powerful than hatred and enmity.

 Every  Sunday gathered at this altar, we remember in the breaking of the bread that the mercy and peace of Christ has overcome the mercilessness and violence of this world.

Every Sunday we remember in the sacrifice offered on this altar, how by his sacrificial death on the Cross and glorious resurrection, the Lord has overcome the power of sin and death forever. 

In the first reading we recall how at the foot of Mt. Sinai
Moses spoke to the Israelites of all the words and ordinances of the Lord.  The people replied, “We will do everything that the Lord has told us.”   

Moses then sealed the eternal covenant between God and the Israel by sprinkling the altar and the people with the blood of a young bull sacrificed as a peace offering to the Lord.      

Each Sunday we gather like the Israelites to hear “ the words and ordinances of the Lord”.  Each time we respond “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ” at the conclusion of the readings and the gospel, we are saying, as God’s people: “We will do everything that the Lord has told us”,
and the Father ratifies the new covenant that he has made with his holy people, with each one of us, not with the blood of calves and goats but with the blood of his beloved Son,
poured out to make peace between God and sinful humanity. 

We cannot survive as the Body of Christ without the Eucharist because each time we receive the gift of his Body and Blood, we receive the grace and the strength and the fortitude to “do everything that the Lord has told us.” 

But as members of Christ’s Body, incorporated completely into the mystery of his death and resurrection, we are called not only “to do everything that the Lord tells us”, to turn away from sin and to act virtuously, we are called to go beyond that, to imitate the example of Jesus so as to become more and more like him.

In our gospel today, we heard again the words we hear each time we celebrate the Eucharist. On the night before Jesus was betrayed and put to death, the Lord gave his disciples
the bread which was his body broken for them, saying, “Take it; this is my body”.  He took the cup of wine,  his blood poured out for them, and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many”. 

Each time we gather at this altar, we hear those familiar yet mysterious words of Jesus, that conclude with this command:
“Do this, in memory of me.” With these words, Jesus not only commands us to gather in his memory to celebrate the Eucharist, he gently commands us, invites us, to ourselves become a living sacrifice, in imitation of his total self-giving.

The  Eucharist is a reminder that a life lived, not for ourselves alone but for others, is the saving participation in the divine life of the Trinity, revealed to us in Jesus, which is eternal life. 

In the gift of his Body and Blood,  Jesus reveals to us his life freely given to the Father; given to his disciples; given to the poor and needy; a life given even to the enemies who took his life so cruelly.

As Christians we cannot survive without the Eucharist because the Eucharist teaches us how to give ourselves completely like Jesus.

At Sinai, God’s people promised to do “everything that the Lord has told us”.  At this table, Jesus commands us to gather around the altar of his Body and Blood and to imitate his self-giving, to do what Jesus did.  

It is this self-giving that Jesus commands us to do in remembrance of him.  Jesus commands us to remember him
as one who was consumed by love.  Jesus commands us to remember his sacrifice by becoming ourselves a living sacrifice for the life of the world in the choices and decisions we make each day. 

We cannot survive as Christians without the Eucharist because each time we eat his Body and drink his Blood
we see and hear and touch and taste what it means to live like Jesus, to be Jesus, in this world.

In this world in which we are constantly enjoined
to consume; to acquire and accumulate; to take for ourselves whatever we desire; the Eucharist invites us to share everything we have been given.  Not to be consumers but tto be consumed.

We cannot survive as Christians without the Eucharist
because, nourished by his Body and Blood, we become the food and drink that the Lord offers for a world which hungers and thirsts for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, forgiveness and love.   

This world cannot survive without Christians who each day are willing to be the Lord’s Body and Blood broken and poured out for the life of the world.

“Christians”, St.Augustine said about the Lord’s Body and Blood,” say ‘Amen’ to what you are: be what you receive.”

Brothers and sisters, on this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, let us say ‘Amen’ to the bread of life and the cup of salvation together with the angels and the saints who praise God at the heavenly altar; let us say ‘Amen’ with Fr. Ragheed and his companions and all of the martyrs who stand invisibly beside us at the table of sacrifice; and let us say ‘Amen’, with the whole Church gathered this day
to worship and adore Jesus in the precious and lifegiving mysteries of his Body and Blood.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Gratitude

American Infantry Landing on Omaha Beach
(Photo by Robert Capa)
My friend Janos posted a brief note of gratitude to all those who came ashore 68 years ago today on the beaches of Normandy, a sentiment that I wish to echo.  World War II was a human catastrophe in every way possible to imagine but the defeat of Nazism was a victory for the possibility of a civilized world. 

The landings at Normandy were the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe and I am grateful for the sacrifices of the American, Canadian, British, Polish and Free French soldiers, sailors and airmen who were killed or wounded this day so many years ago.  DziÄ™kujemy! Merci! Thank you!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Forever and Ever (the Morning Star, continued)

Christ the Morning Star
(Illuminated Easter Proclamation,
The Liturgical Press 20012
The Morning Star (also known as the planet Venus) continues its transit of the sun as I write. Against the enormous disk of the sun, it is a tiny black dot moving imperceptibly if inexorably "east" (assuming that we've flattened out the sun and stopped its motion!) There won't be another transit of Venus for another 113 years, then another one eight years later.

I liked what a commentator I was listening to last night on my drive home had to say about this. (Unfortunately, I didn't catch his name).   He noted that no-one listening to him would be in existance (his phrase, not mine) the next time Venus crossed in front of the sun. An entirely new generation (think back to the last transit at the end of the 1880's) would be on hand, but none of us.

He thought that the transit of Venus an inspired occasion to reflect on the brief time horizons that is inevitable for human beings -- its almost impossible for us to think more than a few years forward in time.

In the perspective of faith, as Christians we hold both the brevity of life and the infinite expanse of eternity in tension. That is, while with everybody else, believers struggle (as the NPR commentator noted) to think farther ahead than the next dentist appointment, as Christians we are constantly reminded that we exist (and will continue to exist), in an unimaginably vast horizon of time -- in God's time, which is beyond our ability to comprehend. (God being eternal and beyond time and past, present or future).  It's within this context that believers observe with wonder and awe the marvels of cosmos, including the journey of our tiny neighboring planet past the enormous expanse of the sun.

Its no accident, I think, that in our tradition, East and West,  all of our liturgical prayers conclude with some version of this doxology: "Through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you (the Father) and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever.

The Morning Star

One the pleasures of getting up early in the winter in Southeast Alaska is the chance to view the Morning Star just as the day is beginning to dawn.  The anciet Greeks observed the first star of the evening, which they called Hesperus and the Morning star, which they called Phosphorus, the "lightbringer".  They believed they were looking at two stars but we know now that Hesperus and Phosphorus are one 'star' , the planet Venus.  The Exsultet, which is proclaimed at the Easter Vigil concludes by welcoming Christ, the Morning Star, "who sheds his peaceful light on all humanity". 

But with the sun is rising earlier and earlier each day in Southeast Alaska as we move towards the solstice on June 21st, the Morning Star is difficult to see in the summer sky.  

I was thinking about the Morning Star which is, is at times, difficult or impossible to see, while reading a passage from St. Boniface, whose martyrdom on this day in 754 we remember today.  Quoting scripture he counsels his readers to "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own prudence.  Think on him in all your ways, and he will guide your steps."

St. Boniface, this great bishop and missionary also advises: " In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life's different stresses.  Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course."  

For me, the Church's "voyage across the ocean of this world"  is such a compelling image of the life of faith.  Just as in his day there were no charts, weather reports or storm warnings beyond the pilotage passed down from generations of navigators and ship captains, there is just no way of knowing what is ahead of us in this life, either as a Church or in our own personal pilgrimage of discipleship.

That image of the ship reminded me too, as I meditated on it, of other voyages.  Over two hundred years ago, James Cook and company,  traveled to far-off Tahitii to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.  He and the scientists with him sought to determine with greater accuracy the distance between the earth and the sun, by observing the transit of the Morning Star across the sun from various vantage points across the globe.   For Cook and his companions, this voyage was a perilous but admirable undertaking as they sought to better understand the world around them.

Which brings me back to Boniface and his own voyage into the uncharted waters of the mission field, eager to bring the Gospel to his fellow Saxons in Germany and Frisia.  At the service of the Lightbringer, the Morning Star, he brought the light of Christ into the darkness of error and sin, trusting that the Light has, once and for all, overcome the darkness.

I love the way Boniface concludes his exhortation: " Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor paid servants who runs away before the wolf.  Instead, let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ's flock."           

Monday, June 4, 2012

Remembering June 4th, 1989

During the seven week occupation of the square, art students created a statue,
"The Goddess of Liberty" to symbolize their democratic aspirations.
Today is the 23rd anniversary of the massacre of student protesters in Tiananmein Square.  Hundreds, possibly thousands of students and their supporters, who had occupied the square calling for peaceful democratic change, were killed by soldiers and police who opened fire on them with automatic rifles and machine guns.    The repression that followed resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of dissident students and intellectuals and the government launched a campaign to erase the memory of the horrific events of June 4th from the collective memory of the nation.  
The Chinese government to this day denies that the killings took place.

Every June 4th since 1989 the dissident poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo , (who is at present serving an eleven year prison sentence for his outspoken criticism of China's authoritarian leaders) , has written an elegy to those who were died on June 4th .

In this small way he has sought to keep the memory of the events of those days alive in the memory the Chinese people.  A bi-lingual edition of his "June 4th Elegies" has just been published in the United States.   As soon as I have a chance to see the book, I will share one of his elegies here.  In the meantime, I'd like to share with you a beautiful poem he wrote in 2000 from prison to his beloved wife.

One Letter Is Enough

for Xia

one letter is enough
for me to transcend and face
you to speak

as the wind blows past
the night
uses its own blood
to write a secret verse
that reminds me each
word is the last word

the ice in your body
melts into a myth of fire
in the eyes of the executioner
fury turns to stone

two sets of iron rails
unexpectedly overlap
moths flap toward lamp
light, an eternal sign
that traces your shadow

8. 1. 2000

Friday, June 1, 2012

"No right-minded person forsakes truth for falsehood."

I suppose I have been devoted to St. Justin Martyr ever since writing a large icon of him (with scenes from his life) back about 15 years ago.   I spent over six months living with him (or at least seriously meditating on his life) while first drawing the central standing figure of the saint and each of the cartoons for the various episodes in the life and then painting the entire icon.   
The  icon(above) was commissioned by St. Justin Martyr parish in Anaheim, California.  The original  isn't anywhere near as green as the photograph -- the colors aren't even close, actually.  However, the detail is pretty good.

I really came to appreciate St. Justin (and companions).  Justin was a pagan who came from Neopolis (Nablus) in Palestine.  He set out to search for the truth.  At the top of the icon he is shown encountering three teachers of different schools of Greek philosophy, all of which Justin found unsatisfactory.  He finally settled on a Platonist teacher who he studied with for a number years until he met an old man at the edge of the Mediterranean, who introduced him to Christ and the gospel.  Justin had discovered what he was searching for in the person of Christ and was converted and baptized.  In Rome, where he served as a catechist Justin wore the white philosopher's robe, to symbolize that in Christ he had discovered the Truth that all philosophers were seeking. 

He wrote a variety of 'apologies' -- to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, to the Roman Senate and to the Greeks, to explain and defend the faith of Christians.  He also wrote a dialogue with a Jewish scholar named Trypho in which he sought to answer contemporary Jewish objections to various Christian teachings about Jesus.

Inevitably, while in Rome he and his companions were denounced as Christians to the Roman magistrate Rufinus.  Threatening them with torture and execution, he sought to compel Justin and companions to worship the Emperor and the pagan gods, which they refused to do.  There is a contemporary account of their interrogation by the magistrate in which Justin, ordered to sacrifice to the gods, replied, "No right-minded person forsakes truth for falsehood."  His companions replied in a similar fashion and said: "Do with us as you will.  We are Christians and we cannot sacrifice to idols."

St. Justin Martyr was first scourged and then beheaded, along with his companions.