Today I’d like us to take three steps back, tilt our heads slightly to the side and have a look at the church in the West. I think something’s off. Let’s explore together.
The ‘I’ in church
When I look at the church of Jesus today (mainly, but not limited to the West), I see groups of individuals who happen to associate themselves with a particular movement, society or social club. Individual disciples of Jesus, their nuclear families and other people who, for a period of time, gather with other like-minded individuals. The church of Jesus in the West is (at large) an expression of the individualistic West. Which is to say: the individual is the point, the whole serves the individual, and the individual is part of the whole for so long and as long as (s)he gets more out of it than they need to give or put…
I walked about fifteen minutes to the Barrio Alto Hotel where I met my guide and travel companions. There were eight of us in all—myself, an Armenian couple now living in Las Angeles, a Chinese couple now living in Michigan, and a family of three from Buenos Aries, Brazil (the history of Portugal and Brazil is closely knit together.)
From there, we drove north (our driver averaged 95 mph in the Mercedes van) to Fatima (about an hour). Along the way, the guide explained to us (first in English, then in Portuguese) the significance of the site, the apparitions, the three shepherd children, and all. It is fascinating to hear, even if you are familiar with the story.
When going to Fatima, it is not about the buildings. It is about the location and the events that occurred there. The buildings came much later. The first picture below shows the actual location of the apparitions and the original place of worship that the Virgin Mary asked to be built. The second, the church, was built later as the site grew in importance and more pilgrims arrived. There is now a third church, which is more like an auditorium, that will hold 8,000. I was glad that the Pilgrim’s Mass was held in the first church.
The Vatican has not yet revealed all the messages that were given but have officially declared the apparitions to be valid; this is primarily due to the fifth apparition: the Virgin Mary asked that six individuals be brought on that day so that they could be healed. When the day arrived, there were at least 40,000 in attendance and 500 to 1,000 were healed and… all reported that the sun danced in the sky. I encourage you to read more about this miraculous event.
From Fatima, we travelled to Batalha (means battle) the site of a great battle and the location of the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory. Construction began in 1386 in thanksgiving for the victory at the battle of Aljubarrota between the Spanish and the Portuguese (these people still don’t like one another, and our guide tells us that anyone who says differently is lying.) There are some fantastic circumstances regarding the battle, but in the end, 6,000 Portuguese defeated 36,000 Spanish in about forty-five minutes. I would probably have built a church myself. At the far right side of the church you see columns that appear to be incomplete… they are. After 129 years of construction, the government said, “Enough,” and put the resources elsewhere.
A note on paying your artist: the one who crafted the horse and rider (general who led the battle) was never paid properly, so the artist made a few “mistakes” in creating the horse. 1) both left feet of the horse are off the ground. Guess what happens when both the left/right feet of a horse are off the ground. 2) It is a male horse that has three of what it should only have two and none of what it should have one. I’ll let you sort that all out.
It is as though they were attempting to enclose heaven itself in such a dramatic space. The acoustics are incredible as the sound bounces off the ceiling (106 feet) and around the columns.
On each stone, you will see certain marks. These are the marks of the stonecutter. No mark = no pay. When a stone has two marks, it means that it was cut by an apprentice under the tutelage of a master.
I shared lunch with this delightful Armenian couple who insisted on paying for mine. I protested, but he gave me a look that informed me I would not “win” the argument, so I said, “Thank you.”
Nazaré was next. It is known for its waves and the last three world records surfing have been attained here. Most tourists come for the huge waves, but as our guide explained, it is only about five days out of the year that the massive ones (120+ feet) come in. It was still spectacular.
If you think that the name, Nazaré, sounds remarkably close to Nazareth (my Armenian friend pointed this out), then you would be correct. A wonderful legend. You can find it here.
And then we were off to Óbidos (I’ll never get the hang of the language, but it doesn’t sound like it reads.) It is a well preserved example of early life in the region and is surrounded by the castle walls. It became a part of the queen’s dowry, so she would dictate the color that all the houses must be painted, which was white, but the owners had the option of color for “framing” the house.
You are allowed to walk along the top of the wall and you do so at your own risk (definitely not OSHA approved!) By this time of the day, I was pooped out, so I did not take my chances in going all the way around, but the view…
The van was quiet for the ride home. All of us, including our guide, had a very full day. When I returned to the apartment, I had a couple of boiled eggs and a piece of bread, then put my feet up.
I typed the date and realized that I should probably be journaling about the events of this day twenty-one years ago, but no… there’s been so much of that. Time to find peace even in the horror of it all. Instead, I checked back and saw that it was June 3, 2022, of my last journal entry, and I needed to catch up. (I’ll be off and on with this, so don’t expect one all the time.)
What’ve I been up to? Writing. Writing. Writing. I have finished the third draft of The Marble Finger: a Father Anthony Savel Mystery. What a remarkable process writing a book can be. It seems that every waking moment and available thinking space in the mind can be consumed with something entirely fictitious. I wrapped it up on Saturday, but all those characters are still chatting away in my head, wanting to go off on some new adventure–which, by the way, I’m already plotting… Salt Lake City. A long way from Wisconsin, but… no. No. No. That will have to wait for another time. Must finish up the Finger first. It is presently in the hands of five beta readers. Once they blow holes in it and I attempt to patch them up with bubble gum and ostrich feathers, I’ll get it out. The original deadline was December 1st, but I believe I will be several weeks ahead. Keep you posted–of course, I will! I want to sell a few copies! But… back to that bit where they want to keep chatting.
I’ve been so involved with it for so many weeks now that I’m finding it hard to let go and not want to go back and fiddle with it a bit, to be involved with them and have them fill the mind. That is one of the great aspects of writing: they take over. They do their things and say what they’ve got to say, and you are at their mercy. OH! That does remind me of a movie: Magic. I don’t know that I ever saw it, but I remember it. The movie poster! Such great rhymes 🙄…
Abracadabra, I sit on his knee.
Presto chango, and now he is me.
Hocus pocus, we take her to bed.
Magic is fun; we’re dead.
I promise you it is certainly not all that bad! It is just that the process is very consuming, regardless of whether or not the end result is any good. Anyhow…
I’ll be working on the grammar of The Golden Fistula and reissuing it a few weeks before the Finger comes out. Of the criticism that I received on Fistula via Amazon, it was the grammar. I’ve no idea what to do with any of it, but now I’ve got people who do. haha. I’ve also got new cover art coming for Fistula. The same artist will be doing Finger and the label for the new wine that is currently fermenting: Isabella. Can you say, “Some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
Preach the Gospel. Write books. Make wine. Hmmm… I haven’t painted for a while.
Travel and travel and travel… I almost missed only one flight when I messed up the time zones. Fortunately I was sitting next to the gate when I realized it was boarding, otherwise, I would have only made it as far as New York / JFK.
Any way you slice it, it is a long trip. The backside gets sore, there are NO comfortable sitting positions for an 8.5 hour flight, and the boredom sets in to the point where you’re simply watching the miles click off, but then you hear the engines begin to slow and your ears begin to pop as the altitude decreases and suddenly, those 8.5 hours are a distant memory.
Following the flights, we took a 1/2 hour train to Rome. Between the graffitied walls and towering apartment buildings, you may catch a glimpse of something far more ancient but mostly it will be the orange poppies that grow all long the tracks that will draw your eye.
The 1/2 hour trip (and a WILD taxi ride through the narrow streets of Rome—made Enid drivers look like Mario Andretti) and we arrived at the Roma Termini, which is the main train terminal in Rome. I kept expecting a NY subway but…
It’s an airport on wheels and a zoo but once you figure out the system you will get to where you want to go, which in our case was Florence.
The ride includes a series of tunnels and each tunnel is like a small jump further and further into the country and farmlands. Hay, other crops, and vineyards (we’ll have more of those later this week) and with a train that clicks along at about 120 mph, you cover the 200 miles rather quickly.
We did do some touristy things but for the most part were a bit pooped out, so we walked the streets and just enjoyed being in Italy. What is so remarkable is when you take into consideration how long these places have been around. For example, I decided to take a picture of a beautiful statue of Christ crucified high on a pillar. Near the base was a plaque. The statue was erected in the year 1338.
In addition, throughout the old city there are small niches, mostly at corners, with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and/or Jesus. These are two of the images that worked out:
What an amazing day and perhaps the most moving bit occurred as Heidi, Scott, and I were sitting at the Cafe’ Cibreo enjoying a light snack and a beverage (they were having a white wine and I was enjoying an iced coffee). Heidi stopped in mid-sentence and said, “We’re in Italy!”
Yep. That about sums the day up. We’re in Italy and… yeah.
For about the last year, my friend and colleague, The Rev. Sean Ekberg and I have been working on a journal for The Episcopal Church and today it went live. It includes interviews with Bishops in the church, a seminary dean, ministry stories, and more. If you would like to know the bright side of The Episcopal Church, then you’re going to want to take some time reading through the articles. It is not a quick read, but it is well worth the time. There is much that is good happening. If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been spending my extra time… here you go. I believe, if you click the image below, it will take you to the Issuu edition.
At the death of Jesus, we are told of many unnatural occurrences in the natural world, for even the earth and heavens rebelled and reacted to the death of Jesus: the sun went dark, the earth shook in a violent earthquake, and the curtain of the Temple was torn into. A great upheaval… then the murmuring of the people returned. The crowd dispersing, What to do with the bodies, finding a tomb, something to anoint Jesus with, but then… the silence came over it all and all of creation held its collective breath as Jesus lay in the tomb.
N.T. Wright wrote a poem about this day and that silence (The Seventh Day):
On the seventh day God rested in the darkness of the tomb; Having finished on the sixth day all his work of joy and doom.
Now the word had fallen silent, and the water had run dry, The bread had all been scattered, and the light had left the sky.
The flock had lost its shepherd, and the seed was sadly sown, The courtiers had betrayed their king, and nailed him to his throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary, O calm of tomb below; Where the grave-clothes and the spices cradle him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus, Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King, In the brooding of the Spirit, in the darkness of the spring.
Source: N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Easter, pp. 33-34.
Pilate speaks: It is your custom that I release one prisoner to you on the Pasch. Whom shall I set free, Barabbas —a thief jailed with others for a murder —or Jesus? (Matt 27:17) —Put this man to death and release unto us Barabbas, cries the multitude, incited by their chief priests (Luke 23:18).
Pilate speaks again: What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ? (Matt 27:22) Crucify Him!
Pilate, for the third time, says to them: Why, what evil has He done? I find no fault in Him that deserves death (Luke 23:22).
The clamour of the mob grows louder: Crucify Him, crucify Him! (Mark 15:14)
And Pilate, wishing to please the populace, releases Barabbas to them and orders Jesus to be scourged.
Bound to the pillar. Covered with wounds.
The blows of the lash sound upon His torn flesh, upon His undefiled flesh, that suffers for your sinful flesh. —More blows. More fury. Still more… It is the last extreme of human cruelty.
Finally, exhausted, they unbind Jesus. —And the body of Christ yields to pain and falls limp, broken and half dead.
You and I are unable to speak. —Words are not needed. —Look at Him, look at Him… slowly. After this… can you ever fear penance?
(Source: Holy Rosary by St. Josemaría Escrivá)
In Matthew, Barabbas is described as a “notorious prisoner,” John has him as a “bandit,” Mark and Luke have him involved in a riot. However we refer to him, the crime he committed was punishable by death. As I meditated on this mystery, I began to see myself in his place and from there, I wondered…
When Pilate asked, “Who do you want me to release for you,” who’s name would I have wanted to hear them shout out? How would I feel if I understood that he was truly innocent and I had been set free? How would I have felt that those who had called for my release really didn’t care about me, they just wanted Jesus dead. And from there, how would I have felt when I realized that the only one who actually cared anything about me was to be scourged by the same soldiers who just set me free. I also wondered what it would have been like, as I was walking away from the guards to have caught Jesus eyes.
As I meditated on this mystery and wondered about these things, I also had answers. Who’s name would I want to hear the crowds calling out? Mine. How would I feel about walking away free, knowing he was the innocent one? I’m sorry for him, yes, but I suppose I would have thought, “Tough break.” Did I care that the crowd really didn’t care for me? No. Don’t much care for them either. What were my thoughts on realizing Jesus was the only one who really cared for me? Well, isn’t that the way it always is?
Yes. I have answers for all these questions, except the last. That last question really haunts me, because although I have an answer, I don’t like it. What would I have seen in Jesus eyes as I walked away free and he condemned? The answer, of course, is love. I would have seen love and gratitude. Grateful that he could even save my wretched life.
As my friend Thomas à Kempis wrote in On the Passion of the Christ, “Woe to me, unfortunate sinner, weighed down with the heavy burden of sin! Because of my evil deeds I deserve to be assigned to eternal punishment, but you, holy, just, and loving God, chose to be despised and detested to deliver me from the devil’s deceits and everlasting death.” (Source: On the Passion of Christ: According to the Four Evangelists, p. 47)
The very difficult truth is that we are all Barrabas. Like him, we have all sinned and the punishment for our sins is the same death sentence that he received for his. “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23a) As we meditate on these events, we realize that we are the ones standing with Jesus and facing the crowd, waiting on the verdict from Pilate, and it is there that we understand, though we are guilty we are set free. Not because of anything that we have done or deserve, but because of God’s grace. Because God’s one and only son chose to love us, who are all Barrabas. But here’s the thing, being Barrabas isn’t necessarily bad.
The name Barrabas is made up of two words, Bar Abba. Bar, meaning son and Abba meaning Father, so the name Barrabas means “Son of the Father.” We are all Barrabas, but because of God’s grace, we are all set free, and in being set free, we become Bar Abba, children of the Father. But now, as those children, we must watch Jesus being led away and are witnesses to his scourging. Witnesses to the punishment that was rightfully ours.
Last week we talked about how we must be honest with ourselves and with sincere hearts and minds, confront our own failings, so that we can rightly confess and allow the Lamb of God to take those sins with him to the cross, that through his great love for us, we might be redeemed. Yet, the idea of being honest and confessing often causes us to be fearful. And so, even though it is not possible to hide from God, as the Psalmist says:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7, 11-12)
Even though it is not possible to hide from God, we pretend as though we could. We are like Adam and Eve in the Garden, after they had eaten the fruit: “The man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ [The man] answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid.’” (Genesis 3:8-10) We are afraid to come before God, to confess, because we fear the punishment we so rightly deserve, but—and this is the Good News—the punishment has already been meted out. It is why Josemaría encouraged us to look at Jesus following the scourging: “Look at Him, look at Him… slowly. After this… can you ever fear penance?” Why would you fear to confess, to be penitent, “By his stripes, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Consider again the words of The Exhortation: “Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 316)
There should be great fear in not confessing, but you are Bar Abba—you are God’s child and he endured the scourging that you might be with him. As the Lord said through the Prophet Isaiah:
‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:9b-10)
Let us pray: Father, Your Love never fails. Keep us from danger and provide for all our needs. Teach us to be thankful for Your Gifts. Confident in Your Love, may we be holy by sharing Your Life, and grant us forgiveness of our sins. May Your unfailing Love turn us from sin and keep us on the way that leads to you. Help us to grow in Christian love. Amen.