Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

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Symbolism in Religious Architecture?

Read my article, The Search for Symbolism in Religious Architecture on the website of the Interfaith Forum of Religion, Art and Architecture. IFRAA is a knowledge community of the American Institute of Architects.

What do you think about religious symbolism today? In synagogues, churches and mosques? Important? Not important?


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Homily: That’s No Lie

March 28, 2010

Luke 19: 28-40, Isaiah 50:4-7, Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24, Philippians 2:6-11, Luke 23:1-49

Our annual 40 day retreat has ended. Now we start a Holy Week a time to commemorate the paschal event, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We reflect on how these events affect our lives and all that goes on around us.

This sacred time begins in the wake of the passage of the Health Care Reform bill. That historic event took place at the end of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to move the public, you and me, away from accepting government secrecy. If you watched the House debate last Sunday or the Senate proceedings during the week, if you tuned into Fox News or MSNBC, if you listened to talk radio, you might ask yourself two questions. Who is telling the truth and who is lying?

While the big news in our country focussed on the Health Care Reform bill, news from across the globe rocked the church in Europe and Great Britain. Words like pedophilia, transparency, secrecy, power and control found their way into headlines in Germany, Ireland and the Vatican. Talk of lies and cover-ups spread quickly.

Our government speaks about transparency yet meetings are held behind closed doors. Our church talks about transparency yet secrecy still reigns in high places. Transparency even with one another — between spouses, partners, children, and parents is often elusive. Consider how often any one of us might lie to advance our own agendas.

Let us not be naive. Human beings have always tried to get the upper hand over one another at whatever cost. Even the disciples in today’s gospel were trying to outdo one another. One of the most mean-spirited ways to do so is to discredit the other party, to vilify that group or person’s name, to lie rather than tell the truth.

All of these situations remind us how hard it is to know what is true today. Is telling what is true a lost virtue? Do we live in a culture where lying has become an acceptable norm or tactic? And, you are asking by now, what does any of this have to do with Passion Sunday?

We can’t be fooled. The passion and death of Jesus was a political event. The religious and government leaders did not know how to deal with a Jewish prophet who was stirring up trouble by exposing the falsehoods perpetrated on the people by their own leaders. They had to find a way to discredit him and get rid of him.

In the passion of John Jesus is interrogated but he does not lie. His accusers said he blasphemed, opposed paying taxes and started revolutions. These allegations were false. The crowd was asked to choose between Jesus and Barabbas. Frightened by the authorities they selected a violent, murderous thief over Jesus. When asked if he was a disciple of Jesus, Peter became afraid, he lied and said no. The crowd watching Jesus die on the cross mocked him, scoffed at him for impersonating the messiah. Somewhere along the line they were misled. The people including the disciples had no idea about who he really was; that he was interested in their welfare; that he wanted them to have better lives untainted by lies, power, control and greed. In this gospel story they rejected Jesus. They rejected the one we believe to be the truth.

The paradox of today’s liturgy is apparent in everyday life. Goodness and evil live side by side. Truth and lies come out of the same mouths. Words like moral behavior and rationalization have become synonymous. The crown of thorns, the whips, the cross are all intertwined with the empty tomb. We stretch out the holy days but Jesus’ death was his resurrection. At the same time he reached the lowest point in his life, somehow the Spirit did not leave him. He rose up again.

Dying at the hands of the rulers he broke the cunning bonds of deceit and dishonesty. Some say his death was inevitable, part of the plan. If he knew this in advance the human side of him might have tried to wiggle out of it. But, Jesus wasn’t a wimp, he had a purpose. He was not afraid to tell the truth; he remained faithful to his convictions in the face of humiliating lies and a torturous death. Jesus was totally transparent which made him vulnerable. Maybe that is why some people do not want to be transparent, because it exposes them, it tells the truth about them.

The ways in which we are engaged with the wrongs in society and our church provides sparks in the night. We still have to sort through the muddle, the lies, the half truths, the scare tactics that deny vulnerable people a right to live in peace with justice. In our psalm today we asked God not to abandon us. Maybe we are the ones who abandon God like those in the gospel today.

We are called to live our lives by seeking and telling the truth, by holding each other accountable, by respecting one another even as we disagree, by treating each other in a civil manner. Jesus did all of these things to his final breath when he cried out to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit!” And, that’s no lie.

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What Makes a Place of Worship Holy?

The question is usually asked, “What does it take to make a sacred space?”

Here’s a starting point. Early Christian writer Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) once remarked in an Easter homily, and in so many words, it is not the building that makes the people holy, it is the people who make the building holy.

What do you think? Was John C. correct? How is his axiom useful today? Are there any other architectural, artistic or theological equations that might be used in making a place of worship holy?


Homily: Get Up Lazarus!

5 Lent A – March 21, 2010 – “Get Up Lazarus!”

Ezekiel 37: 12-14, Psalm 130:1-8, Romans 8:8-11, John 11:1-45

Note: Where there is an asterisk * the assembly was asked to shout out, “Get Up Lazarus!” … and they did.

Burial grounds are mysterious places. Some are elegant architectural masterpieces. Others are marked simply with sticks and stones. There are mass graves for victims of war, genocide or natural disasters. For some a grave marks the end of life. For others its a threshold between earth and heaven; between hard realties and the wonder of life beyond space and time.

There is a tomb in each of the three readings this morning. The valley of dry bones in the first reading was a battlefield. The prophet Ezekiel imagined the dead there would come back to life. Those old bones symbolized Israel in exile and its eventual restoration to its homeland. The Psalm is a cry for mercy and deliverance from being buried in captivity. [1]

There is a tomb in the third biblical text. [Again, this gospel is known as the book of signs. It contains seven miracles intended to stir up faith in Jesus as the chosen one. Scholar John Pilch reminds us this gospel was not written by a coroner  (like the one in CSI Miami) and so we need not be concerned about the details.] The author of the gospel was writing for members of his community (about 50 years after Jesus). They wondered what happened whenever one of their own died. Was there life after death as promised?

The purpose of this gospel is less about the raising of Lazarus from the dead and more about believing in Jesus Christ as the resurrection and life. The very idea of resurrection after death requires faith. Lazarus was resuscitated back to human life. He had to go to work the next day. The story was written to show that Jesus had power over death. The Spirit in Jesus that poured into Lazarus was the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. * Ultimate resurrection is not just a resuscitation of a dead body back to human life. Rather it is the eventual, total transformation of life. [2]

This transforming Spirit moves us to dig out of the graveyards of life. During those times when we feel tired, * helpless, * alone, * cheated * our bones will not dry up. Why? Because there is a Spirit-filled purpose for each of our lives.

In the gospel story, Mary and Martha represents all of us who wonder about the absence of God in times of trouble, sickness and death. Where is God when money runs out, * when water and electricity are shut off, * when hospital bills cannot be paid, * when insurance companies turn us away? * Who restores new life us? Where do we get our strength, our energy?

These are the times when the faith community finds purpose. Like Jesus we are the first to cry when someone is mistreated or sick or falls into bad luck. Like Mary and Martha we profess belief in the risen Christ — we protest war and broken immigration laws; * we feed thousands every year from our food pantry; * we write letters to our political leaders charging them to act responsibly; * we care for our elderly and homebound; * we nurture our youths so they grow in faith and good works. Ah, get up Lazarus!

All of these efforts require the strength of the community, a vigor that grows out of our baptismal commitment. The third tomb of sorts is in the second reading — a baptismal font. A person is immersed in a font of living water to symbolize identification with the life of Christ including suffering and death. Rising up and out of that font is to rise up with Christ. It is a experience that leads to a life of growth and transformation. We’re not finished yet.

For Mr. Cain Marion baptism at the Easter Vigil will not merely be a rite of passage into Christianity. Rather it will be about the recognition of the Spirit within Cain that prompted his spiritual pilgrimage. Cain has been growing in his response to the Spirit already within him. Although we all have that Spirit because God created us, some of us have not yet fully tapped into it. The rituals we experience during Cain’s journey are intended to charge us with a new purpose in our lives. As with our liturgical actions, spectatorship in the daily life of the Church is not the norm.

The next time we go by a cemetery let us imagine that all the graves are open and that the dead are risen. It’s a haunting idea, isn’t it? Then let us think what might happen to us after death. Will we rise again? Until then, imagine the restorations that are possible in everyday life because the Spirit is already within us. Those resuscitations are the ones that give us new life. Jesus said, *!


1 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Revised Edition. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1984) 38, 49-51

2 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995) 61-63.

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Homily: I See You

1 Samuel 16, 1, 6-7, 10-13, Psalm 23:  1-6, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

In Hindu theology an avatar is the manifestation of a God in some shape or form. Sudipto Chattopadhyay, who writes a blog on movies, commented on the religious storyline in the film Avatar. Whenever the world seems to be in big trouble, he wrote, Vishnu, a major Hindu God who protects the universe, would take on a mortal form to save the people. “It was the only way human civilization would … reach salvation.” [1]

A troubled world? God coming to the rescue in human form? This doctrine sounds a lot like the Christian belief in God who became human to enlighten and bring salvation to the world.

The scriptures today help us grasp this notion of God as enlightenment or illumination. In the first reading David, a one time underdog, is anointed as the leader of the Israelites and the spirit filled him. As the story goes God saw something in David that others did not. How does one get to see inside a person?

The fourth gospel attributed to John is also called the “book of signs” because it contains seven miracles intended to build up faith in Jesus as the chosen one. Originally this story was just about a blind man healed by Jesus. The author added the trial scene probably to reflect the expulsion of Jews, who became Christians, from their synagogues. [2] The miracle is a sign that Jesus is the revelation of the creator God. Might we say an avatar? A later interpretation suggests that the healing at a pool of water (Siloam) is a reference to baptism which in the early church was known as illumination. Those who are baptized are illuminated. Those who are illuminated are the holy ones of God.

In the movie Avatar, the Na’vi, the people of Pandora, greet each other saying, “I See You” (which is the theme song for the film). This is not like our “hello” or “how are you?” Rather, it means I understand and accept you. I validate you. Again in the Hindu tradition this greeting is a recognition of the divine spark present inside a person. In the film the Na’vi are portrayed as an enlightened people. Isn’t that what we believe? That Christ the Light is present in us; that we who are baptized are illuminated?

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Homily: Scrutiny Brings Out the Best in Us

Evaluation, comments, ideas are always welcomed. Thank you.

Exodus 17:3-7, Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9, Romans 5:1-2, 5-8, John 4:5-42 (Link to today’s readings.)

Six hundred years before the time of Jesus, the ancient Greek philosopher Thales (t-hay-leez) taught, “Water is the principle, or the element, of things. All things are water.” [1]

In our country most people take water for granted. But that is not true for everybody. There are people in these United States who cannot afford to pay for water and so it is turned off. In some places companies continue to skirt the laws and pollute water. Heated debates focus on water rights, supplies and distribution. One would think that access to fresh water is a basic right.

There are great water stories in the bible. The flood and the passage through the Red Sea are blockbuster examples. Today the scriptures focus on water and its importance in our spiritual journeys. Water can refresh and give life as quickly as it drowns and destroys life.  Many religions like ours use water in initiation rituals to symbolize both of these aspects. In the first reading the Israelites who were liberated from slavery in Egypt found themselves wandering in the desert. They were thirsty, irritable and started to quarrel with Moses. They delighted when he found water for them and it became a sign of salvation. Were the Israelites testing God? Was God scrutinizing them?

In the gospel we heard a story about Jesus who was also thirsty. He wasn’t supposed to be in Samaria much less talking to a woman. The woman, Photina by name, wasn’t supposed to be at the well at that time of day. Was this a lucky coincidence? Although some scripture scholars doubt this incident ever took place, we love to hear the story. It’s puzzling. It gets our attention. What is this fable really all about?

Jesus and Photina were scrutinizing one another. They were listening with open hearts. Both of them came away from their encounter with new insights. Jesus recognized the woman in all of her beauty, her strength, her bold conviction. Photina saw in Jesus somebody special and someone who cared about her. When he described himself as “living water” she recognized Jesus as the chosen one and in those moments she found herself becoming a disciple. A change took place as Jesus and Photina related to one another. In the 2nd reading today we learn, as did the Romans, transformation requires openness on our part, openness to the Spirit. Scrutiny can lead to transformation, to bring out the best in someone.

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