Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Birds

Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.  
(Matthew 10:29-31, Proper 7A)

Jesus has seen these birds (or some like them) before, and he will see them again. Not just see them but mention them in words and deeds that have been recorded for us. Here, the reference to the sparrows compares the worth and value of humans relative to the birds. 

The earlier Gospel reference is when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification for Mary. In accordance with the specifications of Leviticus: When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering...If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. Unable to afford the lamb, Mary and Joseph bring the doves: ...and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons. (Luke 2:24)

In many images of the Presentation in the Temple, Joseph will be holding a cage or basket with the two birds. In the Byzantine manuscript illumination below, the doves are being carried in Joseph's hands, wrapped somewhat in his garment. Their eyes are focused toward the infant Jesus who is in his mother's arms. 
Presentation in the Temple. Menologion of Basil II. 879-11th century. 
Rome, Italy: Vatican Museums. See:
The thirdGospel reference to the sacrificial birds is implied more than explicit. At the end of his ministry, Jesus cleanses or purifies the temple, seeking to drive out all the commercial endeavors that have taken up residence in the temple: exchanging money, selling/purchasing animals for sacrifice, etc. There would have been vendors selling birds as part of the temple commerce. This is probably how Joseph and Mary acquired the doves for their own sacrifice. Some of the paintings show animals scattering before Jesus' whip of cords. Some will show the bird sellers as well. 

The painting below, by Raymond Balze, includes the bird details, but seems more of a still life than a dramatic moment of violence. Christ stands like a statue at the center of the composition, gesturing the merchants away from the place where they have set up shop. The work is rich in detail, if short on action. Perhaps it was meant to demonstrate the artist's composition skills rather than illustrate the scriptural text. One bird has "flown the coop" in the hubbub of Jesus' actions.
 Raymond Balze. Purification of the Temple. 1850. 
This theme rises to the surface at the beginning of Jesus' life, at the end of his earthly ministry and as part of his teaching. Why do you think that is? What is it about these seemingly insignificant, two-for-a-penny birds that makes them appear not once, not twice but three times?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Unexpected Visitors

Abraham's three visitors were unexpected. They just showed up there at the camp under the oaks of Mamre. Abraham was sitting in the door of his tent in the heat of the day. So he offered food and hospitality to these unexpected visitors who turned out to be way more and promise way more than he originally thought they might (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7, Pr 6/Ord 11/Pentecost 2, Year A).

The unexpected visitors - and the unexpected news they brought - are not so unexpected to us today. We have read the story. How, then, can we give ourselves the experience of seeing these visitors in a new light - as Abraham saw them by the end of the text. Two options are below.

In the painted Biblical scenes and stories of artist Fr. John B. Giuliani we see indigenous peoples: the people of Guatemala and Bolivia, Apache and Crow, Navajo and Choctaw. In Giuliani's The Tent at Mamre, three chiefs - Lakota, Cheyenne and Apache - are the unexpected visitors hosted by Sarah and Abraham. Abraham and Sarah are not included in the scene, but their tent (a Blackfeet buffalo tipi) provides the background for the scene. Does Giuliani's version of the story make you ask different questions? Or help you understand Abraham's surprise at these visitors who just seemed to appear?

A second "unexpected" depiction of the story is that by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The part of the reading from Genesis 21 includes Sarah's overhearing the visitors' assertion that she and Abraham will be parents, even at their advanced age. In response to this announcement, Sarah laughs. (Remember, it is that laughter that will give Isaac his name.) Sarah's laughter is overheard, and one of the visitors confronts her.

Tiepolo has chosen that moment, and, at least for me, the appearance (and by that I mean the way the visitor looks, not that the visitor appeared) of this angel is unexpected, to say the least. From the wings that are almost as tall as the angel, to the medallion-patterned gathered and draped garment (not to mention the thigh-high slit) and the gold sandals, this angel is quite unexpected. Sarah is dressed in 17th-century fashion with her standing lace collar, which feels anachronistic in its own way. But it is the angel who steals the sartorial show. He stands outside the "tent" in the light while Sarah kneels in the shadows, her dark clothes blending into the dark wall behind her.

Abraham was sitting in the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he looked up and saw three visitors. What do unexpected visitors bring to us? What hospitality do we offer them?

Top photo: John B. Giuliani. The Tent at Mamre. To purchase cards and reproductions of this and other work:
Bottom photo: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Sarah and the Angel. 1724-29. Fresco. Palazzzo Patriarcale, Udine.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Some doubted, according to Matthew's gospel (Matthew 28:16-20, Trinity A). In other post-Resurrection situations, Jesus has shown up to reassure, to explain, to breathe on, to answer. Not here. Some doubted, and, yes, Jesus showed up. But what he said was, "I have all authority. Go." There's a little more to it, but the essence seems to be the claiming of authority and almost immediately the instruction to go.

Go into the world. All of it. Make disciples. Teach. Baptize. Go
 And when Jesus tells you to go, shouldn't you go?

We lose sight of the disciples (now apostles) and their travels at this point, though legends abound about where the disciples went. Thomas is credited with going to India. Andrew reportedly preached in Russia. Bartholomew took Christianity to Armenia. James, the son of Zebedee, preached in Spain.

They did, indeed, go into all the world according to these traditions, and make disciples in all these places. They might have sailed on boats or ridden a horse or camel, but the majority of their travel would have involved walking.

Their sandals were more utilitarian than the shoes pictured here, but these shoes remind us of the world into which we are called to go. And like those first apostles who heard the word "Go", Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age.

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