Category Archives: art

Building a City

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Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 16th century

After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else happens: human beings, desiring to be together, join in building a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place favorable for human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

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Noah and the Ark

Where did the story come from?

A few years ago Nova on PBS featured a program called“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark.” In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent,” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. Floods, sometimes great floods, occurred, so the people had to be ready. You had to keep your boats handy, and a big boat also– you never knew..

But people then, as now, had short memories. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests then– meteorologists and story tellers of the age– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story in Genesis, to keep people on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in shape and make sure a big boat’s around for ‘the big one.’”

Jewish priests and scribes in 6th century Babylon saw the story a perfect fit for the story of human origins they were telling their people. For them the take-away from the story was not to keep a big boat handy, but to be faithful to God like Noah and Abraham and their families. If they were faithful, God would save them from the flood and bring them  to the Promised Land.

The Nova program showed evidence from today of those big boats there “just in case.”

The story gave hope to the Jews driven from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon where, “By the rivers of Bablyon, we sat ad wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm 137)  Christians– the pictures in the catacombs remind us (above)– saw Noah as a sign that the waters of baptism saved them from death and brought them the promise of paradise lost by Adam and Eve.

So the story of Noah and the ark is more than a myth.

Learning from Genesis


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Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, , invites Christians to turn to the Book of Genesis to understand how they’re related to the earth.

Genesis makes clear in its first chapter that the earth, “our common home,” is God’s work. God works for 5 days to create the world; only on the 6th day does God create man, whom he gives dominion over creation– but not absolute dominion. God made this world, not us, and every created thing enjoys a distinct relationship to its creator.

The dominion we have from God is a gift and is not absolute. We’re to help, respect, understand, tend, care for creation: creation isn’t ours to do what we want with it.

The 2nd chapter of Genesis describes the creation of eden-2man. The earth is dry dust, but water wells up making a soft wet clay from the dust. God, like a potter, fashions man from the clay, breathing the breath of life into him and making him a living being.

We’re creatures of the earth, the story says.  As we’re reminded on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

After creating man, God places him in a garden filled with all kinds of plants and trees. Two trees are singled out, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man is forbidden to eat from that tree.

What’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Why is it forbidden to eat its fruit?  There are different interpretations. Some interpret eating from the tree as a decision of moral autonomy. By eating its fruit, I claim a knowledge of good and evil; I say what’s right or wrong.

Not unusual to hear that today, is it? Some believe they’re in absolute control of their lives. They choose what’s right or wrong, good and evil, rejecting the limits of the human condition and the finite freedom God gives human beings.

Another interpretation sees eating from the tree as a decision to trust only in human experience and human knowledge that we gain as we grow and progress individually and as a people. Like children distancing themselves from their parents, we must be self sufficient, gaining a wisdom on our own. The danger is that human experience and human wisdom become absolute.  We distance ourselves from God.

Can we see both these approaches harmful to our environment? The first leads to a possessiveness of created things;  they belong to us alone and we can do anything we want with them.

The second way also leads to harming our environment. Pope Francis speaks of the danger of “anthropocentrism,” putting human beings at the center of everything, a trend he traces back to the beginnings of the Enlightenment in the 16th century. Trusting human knowledge and human creativity, some are convinced that science and technology alone can bring about a perfect world.

Technology isn’t enough to meet our present environmental crisis, the pope says, we humans need to change. We need to humbly accept our place in creation, as God meant it to be.

What about the tree of life in the Genesis narrative? In the garden the tree was a promise of continuing life. Once banished from the garden,  human beings face death.

tree-of-lifeWhen Christ came in the fullness of time, he brought life to the world, Christians believe. In his death on the cross, the sign of death was replaced by a sign of life. His cross is a tree of life.

Here’s Pope Francis from Laudato si:

“The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).

It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.”

Pope Francis, Laudato SI  66

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Calendar on the Kitchen Door


About this time every year when I was a boy, my mother would put up on the kitchen door the calendar we got from church. She marked down the anniversaries of family deaths and birthdays and other celebrations coming along, and she added other dates as the days passed. The pictures on the calendar interested me most then. When we put up the calendar, we were ready for the days ahead.

The calendar’s still a good way of getting ready for the days ahead. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart,” one of the psalms says.

My calendar today is on my computer instead of the kitchen door, and it’s changed in a number of ways since the Second Vatican Council. The council created a general calendar listing the main feasts and seasons, Christmas and Easter, advent and lent, to be celebrated by the church throughout the world. The general calendar also lists the days for celebrating saints honored the world over, such as Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the apostles, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa of Avila. It also lists scripture readings that are read at Mass for the weekdays and Sundays throughout the year. It guides us to the treasures of our faith.

The council left countries and regions to decide on some celebrations of their own. In our particular calendar here in the United States, for example, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day and American saints like St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Elizabeth Cabrini and St. John Neumann.

The calendar’s still a good way to keep our lives in order, not only doctors’ and social appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, but our spiritual lives as well. They go together. We’re meant to live from feast to feast and be formed by the mysteries of Christ, his saints and the scriptures.

Every Sunday evening I publish the week’s calendar on my blog – http://www.vhoagland.wordpress.com . It’s my kitchen door. Through the week I reflect on the feasts and seasons and saints on that blog. The calendar’s a teacher helping us to “number our days aright.”

St. Agnes, January 21

St. Agnes
January 21, 2019

St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes, one of the most popular Roman women martyrs of the 3rd century, is among the seven  women mentioned in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer:  “Felicity, Perpetua,  Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” She’s honored in a special liturgy in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

Her story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but some basic facts about her seem historically reliable. Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him because she believed as a Christian she had the right to remain unmarried. A deeply religious young woman, she wanted to give her life to God.

That wasn’t an option for Roman women then. Women were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed citizen soldiers then to grow and hold on to its empire. Only reluctantly did Rome come to depend on foreigners for its fighting. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. 

When Agnes refused to marry, she went against Roman expectations. She was also a Christian and since she lived in times influenced by Diocletian, a notorious enemy of Christianity, she was a target of religious persecution. They pressured her to give up her beliefs; when she refused they declared her an enemy of the state.

Tradition says the authorities brought her first to the Stadium of Domitian, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of degradation, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her to the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith. 

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Martyrdom of Agnes, Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Commentators like St. Ambrose, writing afterwards about Agnes, marveled at the young girl’s bravery. In Roman households of the best kind, young girls were protected and not expected to speak for themselves. Here was a young girl who stood up to the Roman establishment, even till death. How did she do it ?

“God chooses the weak to confound the strong” the prayer for the Mass of St. Agnes says.  She confounded the way Roman Christians thought about holiness. Men like Peter and Paul and other disciples of Jesus, soldier saints like Sebastian, who witnessed to the faith by dying for it were  the usual measure of holiness then. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, grew later in the 4th century, as disputes took place about the human nature of Jesus. In Agnes’ time women were hardly seen or heard. 

Agnes and women martyrs like her redefined the way early Roman Christians thought about holiness. Women, even young girls, could be heroic witnesses to the Jesus Christ. 

Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city and has been honored there ever since. A majestic ancient church stands over her grave. Another 16th century church honoring her in on the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl endured great suffering.

Some say the 1st Eucharistic Prayer mentioned above goes back to the 6th century pope, St. Gregory the Great, whose family home was on the Celian Hill in Rome, Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women listed in that prayer, all strong women who died for their belief.

One of the new Eucharistic prayers asks us to see “the signs of the times by the light of faith.” What’s the role of women in our times and in our church? 

Wonderful churches to visit, if you go to Rome.

st. agnes church

St. Agnes, Via Nomentana, Rome

Friday Thoughts: Pure Extra Virgin

by Howard Hain

william-dyce-the-garden-of-gethsemane-1860

William Dyce, “The Garden of Gethsemane”, 1860*


To your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday, come and gone, no more than a watch in the night.

—Psalm 90:4


.One good olive.

There are so many factors.

The altitude. The light. The soil. The temperature. The rainfall. The wind. The dew point and humidity. The age of the tree.

Then there are those factors that we can control: pruning, watering, fertilizing, fanning, netting, and wrapping chilly trees with burlap or fleece.

And of course there are those other factors, those that fall somewhere in-between, between our control and our complete lack thereof: most of these relate to the sneaky work of numerous little thieves—animals, birds, insects, and perhaps even fellow farmers or other hungry travelers who just happen to pass by.

But when all is said and done—when all the factors are poured into the olive equation, mixed-up well, and left to unify or settle out—the fruit that’s produced by the world’s most nostalgic, symbolic, and romantic of trees means very little (at least in digestive terms) if it’s simply left to shrivel up and fall to the ground.

———

Picking an olive is perhaps the highest part of the art.

———

When to do so? And toward what end?

If too early, great potential is squandered.

If too late, great taste is lost.

If indecisive, we might as well let nature enjoy it for the time being—for one way or another—God’s process will eventually return it to the earth.

———

And yet, we’re still not done, for even if the olive is picked at just the right time, from just the right tree—the one that has grown in all the right circumstances—when it comes to the culmination of olive production, all is moot if the precious fruit of the womb is never squeezed.

For no matter how good the olive, without applied pressure, there’s nothing left to be labeled “pure extra virgin”.


.But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a women…

—Galatians 4:4


 

* Gethsemane is the name of a garden on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. It appears in the Greek of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark as Γεθσημανή (Gethsēmanē). The name is derived from the Aramaic ܓܕܣܡܢ (Gaḏ-Šmānê), meaning “oil press”.

 

(Dec/23/2016)