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Reflections on the Sistine Madonna

I came upon a story called The Sistine Madonna, by Vasily Grossman, a writer and survivor of Soviet and Nazi antisemitism. A black and white picture of the painting Sistine Madonna was included in the story, so my curiosity was piqued. I found a good quality color reproduction of this painting and I wish to share with you my thoughts.

The Sistine Madonna (click to enlarge)

The Sistine Madonna is a painting by the great Renaissance artist, Raphael. It shows Mary in full standing form holding the Christ child who is looking straight at us. It is called the Sistine Madonna not because it was in the Sistine Chapel, but rather it was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto. It is an incredibly human painting of the young Mary, her face glowing with motherly love. As a matter of fact I would say that this painting shows Mary as a human mother more than any icon I have ever seen. Our icons tend to emphasize the transcendent rather than the earthly. 

I like talking about Mary, the mother of Christ. Yes, she is Theotokos, the Mother of God, and all those other amazing titles the church has bestowed upon her. But I like to think of her simply as Mary, Miriam, the young Jewish girl who was chosen by God for a most amazing miracle. In three days the Orthodox Church celebrates her entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem. The sheer irony never ceases to amaze me. The church celebrates the entrance into the holy of holies by a girl – something strictly forbidden by Jewish laws – and yet after 2,000 years the church still does not allow women or girls to serve in the altar in any way! As I said, irony.

I was so overcome by the beauty of this painting that I took the upper portion of it and made it the wallpaper of my computer. So when I turn on my computer I immediately see the two faces touching each other and looking out toward me, toward all human beings. Mary looks a bit to her left while Christ looks straight at me. It is with my humanity, with your humanity, that Christ looks out. Looking at Christ I see my humanity in all its glory and all its sorrows and deficiencies. It’s all there. And Mary holds the Christ tenderly but firmly, as if to protect him from what the world will unleash against him. And we know that Mary did precisely that. The Gospels tell us that she kept a close watch on him and even tried to pull him away from combative encounters with the religious leaders.

Sistine Madonna – enlargement of top portion (click to further enlarge)

The Mary that I see in this painting is the Mary who sang the Magnificat in Luke, chapter 1. Do you know it? She spoke these words when she was pregnant. We sing her words at every matins service. 

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

She considers herself a humble handmaiden – but she is also a rebel and rejoices in the downfall of the mighty. As she looks slightly to her left in this painting she is perhaps imagining those centuries in the future when the mighty of the earth will try to refute her prophetic words by enlisting her son to their ambitions. And she holds her child tight. She does not want to see him used and abused by 2,000 years of human greed and hatred. But she does not hold him so tight as to restrain him from facing his destiny – his destiny on Golgotha; but also his destiny as Savior and Judge. So the child looks straight at us and 2,000 years of human history, with a look of defiance and already a look of judgment. The face of the Christ child in this painting reminds me of the Star Child at the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both images strike deep chords in me. 

Regardless the subtext that I’m reading into the Sistine Madonna, it remains a profoundly beautiful painting. It is profoundly humane, full of sorrowing compassion. It confronts us with questions: Do we see our humanity in Christ? Do we see the love of a mother and the love of a savior who is one of us? And do you see the unity that calls us forward in these times of profound danger? There is one body and one spirit, Paul tells us today in his letter to the Ephesians. We are called to unity, despite how much division and hatred keeps spreading in the world around us. Grossman lived through the decades of Nazi terror, world war, and Stalinist tyranny. As humanity was disappearing around him, he found humanity in this painting. Every one of us can be a beacon of humanity, Christ humanity! Only then do we prove to the world that Mary’s life was not in vain. That she who once held Christ in her arms is now held in his arms. It’s there, in his loving embrace that we find our true humanity.


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An Ill-Mannered Jesus

 

More than 200 newspapers carry the advice column of Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners. I was curious to see if Miss Manners could help Jesus with some dinner etiquette, so I did aa quick Google search. In August of this year, someone asked Miss Manners for advice:

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I find myself stunned at most people’s table manners. For example: breaking bread/rolls and buttering each bite, using a thumb to push food onto a fork, using a place spoon for soup, cutting up an entire entree salad at once, serving coffee after dessert, leaving napkins on the table at end of a meal, passing salt and pepper together, etc.

I never say anything, but just wonder if the etiquette rules I was taught, and followed in a very upper-level hospitality position, have been canceled.

GENTLE READER: It is never a good idea to monitor other people’s table manners, and not only because you are apt to spill something all over yourself while you do so.

Miss Manners notices that you are already agitated, because you have mixed up what should and what should not be done, and thrown in some general rules.

Just to clarify:

Bread and rolls should be broken into small pieces and buttered individually; thumbs should not be used as pushers; the so-called place spoon is a medium-sized oval spoon that can be used (as the teaspoon should not be) for soup or dessert; napkins should be put to the left of the plate at the end of the meal, and salt and pepper should be passed together.

That people violate these and other basic rules does not mean that they have been canceled. So no, the Etiquette Council did not say, “Oh, go ahead, plough in with your hands, who cares?”

But it did resolve to refrain from watching.

So Miss Manners advises not to watch what other people do at a dinner – but there are rules for dinner etiquette.

By Miss Manners’ standards, Jesus showed very poor manners when he was invited to a dinner (Luke 14:7-24). When the parable of the banquet (verses 16-24) is heard without its context of Jesus being a guest at a dinner, it can lead to some very misleading interpretations. Let’s see the context of the parable in Luke 14.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. (Not actually a parable, but advice!) “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(And he offered advice to the host!)

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

(And only then does he tell the parable of the banquet!)

When the parable is read without its context it has often been turned into an allegory, where the invited guests represent the Jews and the lame and the poor represent the Gentiles who are brought in by God to replace Israel. That’s the danger of reading the parable without its context – and the context is an actual dinner to which Jesus has been invited!

When the context is taken into consideration, the parable becomes an expression of the great reversal that Jesus brought into human consciousness and human relations. This was a theme very dear to Luke when he wrote his Gospel. It starts in chapter 1, with Mary’s Magnificat (to call it by its Latin designation).

Part of it reads as follows:

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

We sing this every Sunday morning in the Orthodox Church as part of Matins (Orthros). But have you ever noticed those words? Or do they perhaps make you blush with embarrassment? As in: Really Lord? When did all this happen? When did you bring down the mighty and send them away hungry? The reality of the world seems to be the exact opposite of what Mary magnified the Lord about!

Was Mary naive when she spoke these words, when she sang them in her heart? Was Jesus naive when he said the meek shall inherit the earth? Is the NT out of touch with reality after all? No, Jesus knew what he was saying. Mary was well aware of the ways of the world when she sang that the Lord has brought down the rich and powerful and left them empty and hungry. She knew that’s not the way of the world. The rich are not brought down or sent away hungry; they are only getting richer and more powerful, often with the help of politicians.  But Mary knew what new values the child that would be born of her would bring into the world.

And that child grew to be a man. And that man spoke as the Word of God – the incarnate Logos, by whom and through whom everything was created. And that man Jesus spoke to the host and the guests at the dinner where he was an outsider guest, and told them how it should be among human beings. The parable of the banquet is not so much about heaven as it is about the earthly existence that represents the values of God’s kingdom.

Look around. Are the proud and mighty brought down from their seats of power? Are the rich going hungry? Are the poor well fed? If the answer is NO – and it it is – then the kingdom of God is not among us. Does the church reflect the values of the kingdom and the great reversal that Jesus taught? The answer is again NO. Do individual Christians reflect the great reversal in how we live our lives and who we honour and who we vote for? Do we reflect the values of the kingdom in how we accept those who are different from us? That’s what today’s parable is about. So don’t dream of heaven if you can’t dream God’s dream for life here on earth.


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Still preparing the Way

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner. He is called “Forerunner” because he appeared before Jesus Christ, to prepare the way of the Lord, in the spirit of what Isaiah had spoken: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LordMake straight in the desert a highway for our God.” He was a voice crying out in the wilderness of human society, preparing a people’s hearts to receive the coming of the Lord. Two thousand years later, I venture to say that hearts are still not prepared for the coming of the Lord; the way still needs preparing. The world is still a desert, a “highway” for God is nowhere to be found.

There are churches, cathedrals and monasteries all over the world that claim to have his belt or some other garment of his, some piece of his body or even his head! But nowhere is his spirit to be found.

John was a rebel even before his birth. The story of his conception and birth is told in the first chapter of Luke. He was conceived by divine intervention in a manner similar to the birth of Samuel a thousand years earlier. After the birth of Samuel, his mother Hannah prayed a most remarkable prayer, a prayer far from what we might think would be normal after the birth of a child. But these were revolutionary times.

“My heart exults in the Lord;
    my strength is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in thy salvation.

“There is none holy like the Lord,
    there is none besides thee;
    there is no rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
    let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
….
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
    and on them he has set the world.

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea…” The times of John’s birth were also times of unrest and evil; they were revolutionary times, when God’s new acts were imminent, in the air, in the daily talk of the people. And angel appeared to the priest Zechariah and told him that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, who would “be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And… he will go… in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 

Six months after the angel appeared to Zechariah, another angel went to a young woman in Israel and told her she would be the mother of an even more remarkable baby. Mary was the woman, and a relative of Elizabeth. When she heard the announcement of her miraculous, divine birth-giving, she spoke these words. Note the remarkable similarity to Hannah’s prayer:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Both Hannah and Mary spoke of justice – justice for the poor and hungry, justice that would overturn the high position of the rich and powerful. God’s values were always the opposite of man’s values, regardless of whether you are speaking of ancient Israel or the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time… or today.

St_John_BaptistJohn’s appearance was offensive to civil society. He told people to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand – not the kingdom of man, not the kingdom of Rome, not the kingdom of the IMF or any other worldly power then or now. The Church calls him a saint – but by doing so, have we managed to lose the bite of his existence? Have we domesticated this wild man who lost his head to a king? Did the kingdom of God prove powerless after all, to save him? And did the kingdom of God fail to save John’s cousin, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose way John prepared?

Ah, but the story is not over. The kingdom of God is still coming, the way is still being prepared – if not by John, then by those who choose to go against every institutional restriction, who refuse to be brainwashed by the mighty who still sit on their thrones. Christianity has always lived among those who prefer the wild ways of John, not among the comfortable. If your Christian faith makes you comfortable, you really need to go back and open the Gospels, especially Mark, Luke and Matthew.

John walked in the spirit of Elijah. We are called to walk in the spirit of John, to prepare a way for the Lord, to make a highway for him in the desert of the world’s spiritual emptiness. We are also called to speak with Mary, to dream with her. We sing the words that Mary spoke at every Matins service in the Orthodox Church. We sing them. Perhaps we need to speak them instead – speak them to each other and to the powerful who think they own the world and all that is in it.