Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I am standing here with Dr. Valerie Dudley, the Director of Institutional Diversity at Saint Joseph's University

The Fieldhouse is the site of dance, music and prayer to celebrate this year the 78th Birthday of
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Usually the building bursts with enthusiasm for the basketball teams. But on this day we fill the building with the Spirit. This year we commissioned about 60 students and sent them off on their day of service. But the crowd of neighbors and friends stayed behind to celebrate.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epiphany Sunday January 8, 2006 SJU Chapel
(From the archives but still something I would preach this year of 2007!)

The beginning of this second week of January ends our extended Christmas with the final feasts that the Church attaches to the season. Today we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany, the revelation of the child Jesus, the Word made Flesh, to all nations and peoples represented by the Three Kings.

Let me speak briefly about the event that is the center of this feast, about how artists have presented the event to us especially with a particular gesture and then briefly reflect on this gesture.

We know the story of the Epiphany. The wise men, the Magi, the Kings from the East follow the sign of a star in the sky and come to the house in Bethlehem where the child is living with Joseph and Mary. “They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts.”

There is a dark side to the story, of course, in the background lurks King Herod who is kept in the dark about the identity of this child who might be a rival for his throne. The Wise Men know the identity of the child but King Herod does not. So in a panic of paranoia he kills all the male babies for miles around, hoping to eliminate his tiny rival. By the time of the slaughter Joseph and Mary and the Baby have already escaped into Egypt.

But the part of the story that most engages me is the adoration of Jesus by the Wise Men. Here is a scene that catches the imagination with its storybook quality. For centuries this scene has been an attractive one for artists of all kinds. Mary and Joseph are usually depicted outdoors; often Mary is holding the child in her lap. But here also was an opportunity to illustrate artistic skills. It was all very well to paint the pictures of shepherds and sheep and livestock at the manger in Bethlehem. But such a canvas was drab and colorless compared to the possibilities offered by the presence of kings at Bethlehem. The artists get carried away picturing the horses and camels and all the hangers on and servants. And they especially picture the kings with colorful and even exotic attire. These kings are elegant clothes trees.

I am not much of a dresser myself. And the same might be said for most of the Jesuits here at the University. We do, of course, have a few flamboyant dressers among the Jesuits. Our Jesuit friend, the African American liturgist, Father J.Glenn Murray, travels with his own beautiful chasuble for his liturgical celebrations. He would not be caught dead in anything as plain as this.

Just last week I saw an exhibit of the works of the famous 15th Century painter, the Dominican Fra Angelico. He was called Angelic to highlight his artistic skill as on par with the theological skill of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, the theologian who was called the Angelic Doctor. I saw four different paintings that Fra Angelico made of the Adoration of the Magi. He depicts some pretty sharp dudes. You know how he as a Dominican wore a white cassock-like garment with a dark scapular. His paintings show another side of dressing. He dresses his kings in garments of brilliant yellow, red, blue or pink. And their cloaks are often contrasting gold studded and golden braided material. Their shoes are of different colors. In one painting the kings are still wearing on their heels their elegant golden spurs, having just jumped off their horses and rushed to the side of the child and his mother. The kings wear delicate gold crowns. Their attendants are dressed almost as well with a variety of accessories: decorated swords, purses hanging from their belts and caps of all descriptions, a riot of color and style.

But what a surprise: there is no vanity or haughtiness among these wise men. Their entire attention is focused on the child. In each scene one of the kings-- sometimes Fra Angelico painted them as almost boy-kings, like Prince Harry or William; he did not always paint them as old and learned-looking men (one of the Jesuits reminded me, by the way, that astronomy is a science of the young person)—In each of the four paintings, while the other two kings look on, one of the kings is kneeling at the feet of the Virgin Mary. His crown is set aside on the ground. He is reaching for the baby Jesus resting in Mary’s lap so that he can kiss the baby’s feet. The earthly king kneels and kisses the feet of the baby. All four of the paintings of the Adoration of the Magi, so different one from another, focus on this very sweet and tender action.

Fra Angelico painted these wonderful pictures in the quiet of a monastery. While outside the walls even the Pope was raising money and arms for the wars that ebbed and flowed over the countryside that is now modern Italy. And the Dominican preachers traveled from town to town warning people to prepare their souls for the plagues and famines that so often swept over the population of medieval towns.

We have forgotten the wars that fractured Italy generation after generation. Our part of the world need not keep in mind the threat of plague and famine. What survives as an emblem of the religious and artistic heritage from six hundred years ago is this tender gesture: a king forgetting himself, reversing roles, falling on his knees and reaching out to touch and kiss the feet of this baby.

As it is so worth saving these pieces of art by Fra Angelico, so it is so worth saving this gesture that he paints with such grace. How do we save this gesture and make it a part of our everyday lives? How do we surrender our pride and our self-indulgence? How can we reach out and touch the lives of the poor and powerless?

It is easy for any one of us to forget this gesture as a lesson in humility, as a lesson in what is truly holy. There are men who kiss the feet of babies in order to gain a popular following. All the major politicians allow for such photo opportunities. Surely you will say, Hitler kissed babies, too, before sending their young fathers off to slaughter the Jews in the crematoria.

Most of us in the past week have reviewed the year 2005. The news of suffering seemed to overwhelm our hearts from time to time. Plague, violence and natural disaster claimed the headlines often over long stretches of days; bloodshed and fear for the future countered every good piece of news from Iraq; at home we have a safe haven, yes, but within the global context, our nation must do more to kiss the feet of the world’s children.

Let us at least in our mind’s eye, practice this kind of humble kiss ourselves. Let it remind us of how much we and our world needs to reach out to nourish our children, born and unborn. There is so much to love and protect and nourish in this year to come. May God give us everything we need throughout this blessed year of 2006.

Monday, January 01, 2007


Eileen and I went to visit Lisa. God and the staff at Pine Run keep her beautiful still. She just would not open her eyes for this picture but we were happy to see her in any case and wish her a happy new year.

Maybe she will be with God this year. She has waited long enough.