Sunday, August 07, 2011

the beauty of peeling paint

This is a holy moment…

Matthew 26:26-35 - New International Version (NIV) 26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the[a] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:   “‘I will strike the shepherd,     and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’[b]   32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”   34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” 35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

A sacrament, in a general definition, refers to a ritual meant to invoke divine presence. The Roman Catholic Church defines a sacrament as “an outward sign of an inward (invisible) grace, instituted by Jesus Christ”. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) established the 7 sacraments which are still recognized by Roman Catholics today.  The 7 Sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders (ordination). The Eastern church general accepts the same 7 Sacraments or “Holy Mysteries”, while most Protestants accept only 2 – Baptism and Communion.

An argument can and has been made that, in today’s passage, it was not Jesus’ intent to establish a new sacrament; that he was, in fact, simply observing the very old tradition of the Passover Meal and that his admonition “as often as you do this…” was an assumption that his followers would continue this yearly observance of Passover but with a new and deeper understanding of its meaning.  Regardless of Jesus’ intent, the New Testament seems to indicate that this practice eventually became much more frequent than the yearly Passover feast.

Holy Mysteries...

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Sacraments are humanity’s mystical participation in divine grace. I think maybe that is true. One of the tragedies of modern evangelicalism is the move away from this mystical eastern belief paradigm to a rational logic based system.  Our need to understand has become greater than our need to simply know. Our effort to build a systematic theology which answers every question and defeats every challenge has damaged our ability to wonder… to experience awe… to have our breath taken away by the beautiful mystery of our existence and the Word who was there from the beginning.

When we lose mystery; when we trade it for understanding, we lose the sacraments… the beauty of this holy moment between Jesus and his friends. This moment becomes a one dimensional picture – a familiar image on a canvas – a moment whose beauty is covered and hidden in our understanding; our interpretation of the event.

Arguably, Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” is one of the 4 or 5 most iconic and well known works of art ever created. Painted between 1495 and 1497, the painting measures 15 ft x 29 ft and covers the entire wall of a monastery in Milan, Italy. Because of the materials used and the nature of the painting, it began to deteriorate pretty quickly and by 1556 fewer than 60 years after its completion, one critic declared to work “ruined”. 

By the 1970’s the painting looked like this and in 1978 a 21 year restoration project began which involved, perhaps to oversimplify, painting over the original work – essentially covering the original with an official copy. Some critics claim that the restored version contains significant changes in color, tones, and even some facial shapes.

Those of you who are art history buffs may enjoy this but I imagine others are looking for a connection – other than the painting’s subject matter - to the text. Here it is:

I wonder if in our desire to understand - to create a good doctrine or theology – we lose the beauty, the mystery of the sacrament in our effort to improve it.  Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) saw the painting on a trip to Milan in 1844 and said:

"First we visited the fading inimitable fresco of Leonardo da Vinci. How vain are copies! not in one, nor in any print, did i ever see the slightest approach to the expression in our Savior’s face, such as it is in the original. Majesty and love - these are the words that would describe it - joined to an absence of all guile that expresses the divine nature more visibly than I ever saw it in any other picture."

If familiarity really does breed contempt; many of us have lost the mystery of Eucharist through repetition… through vain observance. If your tradition is a highly liturgical tradition, maybe the bread and wine have lost their power through monotony and dry ritual. Others see no mystery because our traditions removed them… intentionally. By observing the sacrament erratically or rarely -  by moving it from the center of worship to an afterthought – our traditions have sought to make the practice a shallow symbol with no real cause for awe or contemplation.
But what if there is more? What if the act of breaking bread – drinking wine – is more than a picture… more than a symbol? What if the mystery of Eucharist – of all the sacraments – is that in their observance we truly touch the divine? What if Christ is actually present in the bread and wine? If that were true – if we believed that were true – who would we invite?

A few years ago, Jerusalem gave me a book called “Take this Bread”. The book was written by a journalist named Sara Miles. It is her story – a story of unexpected encounter and transformation found within the deep mystery of Eucharist.

One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. On my walks in the neighborhood, I'd passed the wood-shingled building with its sign: ST GREGORY OF NYSSA EPISCOPAL CHURCH. Now with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity—or so I thought—I opened the door. What happened a few minutes later is a mystery. I still can't explain my first Communion; it made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry. …why did Communion move me? Why did I feel as if I were being entered and taken over, completely stirred up by someone whose name I’d only spoken before as a casual expletive? I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first Communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table through my fear and confusion.

Sara Miles encountered the flaking, deteriorating paint of a centuries old image - uncovered and un-restored. Maybe this is what happens when we encounter mystery. Maybe this is where he awaits us. Maybe we find him, not so much in understanding but in touch, encounter, experience, presence.

Most relationships are rooted in mystery. When my wife asks me “do you love me?” I certainly answer “Yes”. But when she follows up with “why?” I have a hard time finding an answer. After 26 years it would seem that I could easily answer that question and yet – I cannot. If we are honest, in most of our relationships, it is much easier to find reasons not to love. If our love for our partners, our friends, our families could be justified through reason or understanding then love would cease to transcend reason. We would only love those who deserve our love. We would love no one… and no one would love us.

Love is mystery. It is transcendent. And it comes without explanation or an answer to “why?” It comes from presence, from connection. It comes whether we seek it or run from it.

What caused John to leap in his mother’s womb? What caused men who earned their living at sea to drop their nets and follow a young carpenter? What caused Saul to take a new name and to follow (and eventually lead) a cult he had been on his way to crush? What caused an atheist, left-wing activist to weep for love and to hunger for bread and wine that fed the soul as well as the body?

Understanding? Reason? A fresh coat of paint on a decaying image?

or - maybe - it was presence… divine presence. Maybe each of us carries within us a tiny combustible piece of His divinity – the fingerprint of our creator. And maybe when we are near Him – when He touches that divinity – it glows and it burns and it changes us. We do not always understand. We do not always need to understand. We see Him and He changes us. We touch Him and He remakes us. We come near him and we are born… again.

We come to the Eucharist table with high expectations or no expectation at all. We come with great faith, with doubt, or with no belief at all. We are invited to experience him - all of us - and no matter how we come, He is here.

"I was, as the prophet said, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all." ~ Sara Miles

May we find awe in His presence…

May we find wonder…

May He take our breath away whenever he is near…

His Kingdom Come…

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