Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 29 May 2016 – A Beautiful Church


The Last Supper by Tintoretto c. 1592

The Last Supper by Tintoretto c. 1592

Body and Blood of Christ C – 29 May 2016 – A Beautiful Church

Click here for today’s scriptures

On the feast of Pentecost I referred to a first century architect who said buildings should be functional, stable and beautiful. I proposed then that the holy Spirit energizes us to act as a functional church. Last week, I suggested that, as part of a divine triangle, you and I can help make the church more stable. Today, I ask you to imagine with me the church, the mystical body and blood of Christ, as something beautiful to behold.

I have a large collection of images depicting the last supper where each artist provides slightly different insights about that meal. Parishioner and iconographer Jennifer Richard-Morrow quotes the artist Edgar Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

One picture I have shows Jesus distributing hosts to the apostles who are kneeling down! Another depicts the twelve men seated around the table dressed in chasubles like the ones priests and bishops wear today. Neither painting provides us with a credible clue about what may have happened at that last supper.

The last supper painting by the late sixteenth century artist Tintoretto offers a more reasonable insight. [1] One sees not only twelve disciples but women and maybe children as well! I like this visual catechism because it suggests that Jesus gathered with disciples, family members and those who prepared and served the meal. It was a chavurah,  a small group of like-minded Jews similar those who assemble today to share communal experiences. (Note: Actually, those gathered for the last supper were most likely seated at a triclinium, a three-sided table.)

Scholars believe that Paul’s letters like the one we heard today provide sophisticated interpretations of the last supper. In Paul’s 1st century churches the meals were modeled on Greco-Roman banquets that ritualized social bonding. According to authors Smith and Taussig, Paul placed special emphasis on the power of the meal “to break down boundaries and create the kind of solidarity that should characterize what the church was to be.” [2] 

Over time the understanding of the last supper as a boundary breaking experience developed into a sacrifice offered by priests for the people who watched. The eucharist became an object of personal piety and eventually emerged as a unfortunate signpost that separated Catholics from other Christian denominations.

The Vatican Two Ecumenical Council helped us recover the sense of the eucharist as a sacrament of unity (SC III, B, 26). It is less about individual piety and more about the common good. Richard Rohr writes, God’s basic method of communicating is not through the saved individual, the rightly informed believer, or even personal careers in ministry. “The body of Christ is our Christian metaphor for this bonding.”

God communicates through all of us. One gets this sense in the Tintoretto painting. In the Mannerist style the artist used light and shadows to frame a beautiful supernatural atmosphere where the real and unreal, the world of the spirit and the perceptible world, can no longer be distinguished. It suggests that the heavenly place we long for is right here, right now. The world may not look like that so we have to finish this painting.

The beauty found in Tintoretto’s last supper is similar to the appeal of today’s gospel. Thousands gathered hungry to hear Jesus’ message. He charged his disciples to provide real food for them. He did not do it himself and the servings were not meager. They were bountiful because the people shared with others what they themselves brought to the event.

The body and blood of Christ is a celebration of the beauty of the church when all members bond by working together, by sharing what we bring to and receive from this sacramental event. The words “do this in memory of me” refer not only to a sacrificial meal but everything else Jesus did in his life — feed, heal, anoint, bless, forgive, save, love.

I am thinking about our food panty (here at St. Vincent de Paul Parish) as an expression of a response to this mandate of Jesus. It is where heavenly food and drink mix with groceries. Brendan Byrne puts it this way, the primary job of Jesus’s followers is to “minister the hospitality of God,” [3] How beautiful is that?

So there you have it. Our church is functional, stable and beautiful when you and I recognize the gifts of the Spirit given to each of us to strengthen the divine triangle. When we can do that much together we will be seen as a church that makes beauty and grace tangible and real for all.

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  1.  The Last Supper by Tintoretto can be seen in the Basilica Di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venezia
  2.  Smith, D. and Taussig, H.  Many Tables: The Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today. (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990)  69
  3.  Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2000) 85


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Homily – Trinity Sunday – 22 May 2016 -A Stable Trinitarian Church


Triangle

Trinity Sunday C – 22 May 2016 – A Stable Trinitarian Church

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Last week on the feast of Pentecost I referenced a first century architect who said buildings should be functional, stable and beautiful. I proposed that the holy Spirit can energize us to act as a functional church. Today I ask you to imagine with me how the Triune God is the foundation for a stable church.

Buckminster Fuller was an idea man who worked in multiple fields —architecture, engineering, design. With a commitment to make the world function for the well-being of human beings he crossed conventional boundaries. He colored outside the lines. He used triangles rather than rectangles in his structures because they were more stable and would hold up better under pressure. 

Fuller’s perspectives were based on the principle of synergetics —  total system behavior unpredicted by the behavior of any isolated components. We function wholistically when our bodies, minds and souls are in synch working together more so than when they are not in synch. In this regard, Fuller understood God as a verb and not a noun. [1]  Fuller would have agreed with author Jason Derr who wrote that God is an action we bring to the world to make love, justice, mercy, joy and goodness known. 

I think about the stability of the church and our synergy. What makes us stable enough to hold up under pressure? How do we continue to think of the interdependence of our mystical body in a world that is full of so many dangers, in societies where governments, religions, households and individuals are not functioning wholistically? 

The idea of a triune Godhead is not explicitly interpreted in the bible. The Trinity was officially formulated (three persons in one being) at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. Elizabeth Johnson writes that the God encountered in the concrete life of Jesus of Nazareth and was present in the spirit of the church and world “was transposed into an abstract, complex and literal and oppressive trinitarian theology. Salvation through Jesus Christ, Johnson noted, requires a view of God that leaves no one subordinate or silenced … we must think of the Trinity with liberating power.” [2]

The mystery of the Trinity invites us to see ourselves as part of a divine triangle that functions, that provides stability in a very fragile shaky world environment. In Richard Rohr’s words, eventually we get the courage to say, “I am a little part of that which I am seeking. In this moment, the idea of God as transcendent shifts to the realization that God is imminent.” [3]

Like a triangle, God is a stable foundation in our lives that provides you and me with the wisdom and strength to stand up against all injustices. How do we know and place our faith in this God? We can count on the witness of God in Jesus Christ. We read in the gospel that the spirit of God provides everything we need to experience how God works in our lives. God is not done yet and cannot be stuck in time. “The Spirit constantly updates our understanding of the once-for-all revelation of God in the Christ-event.” [4] 

Recognizing the spirit flowing in one another is very important for the stability of the church. It is a spirit that is not reserved only to a few privileged members but one that moves freely in and through each one of us and our life experiences. Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich calls it “The everyday life of the soul (feelings, thoughts and words), the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains.” Sadly some church leaders do the same by overlooking the ways the Spirit guides everyone.

Carl Elefante, FAIA (the next president of the American Institute of Architects) spoke recently about how architecture influences behavior, how it shapes human performance, productivity, well-being, and health. He said “we don’t have to seek relevance but seize it.” So too, we who make up the church, fashioned after a triune God, can shape human performance, productivity, well being and health. All we have to do is discover anew every day how God exists in our own lives, grab hold of it and then share it with others.

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  1.  Fuller, Buckminster. No More Secondhand God (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ Press,1963)
  2.  Johnson, Elizabeth. Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. ( NY: Continuum) 2008, 208-9
  3.  Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. (NY: Crossroad Book, 2003) Adapted in part.
  4.  Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition),  442-443.


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Homily – Pentecost – 15 May 2016 – The Function of the Church


Pentecost iconPentecost Sunday C – 15 May 2016 – The Function of the Church

Click here for today’s scriptures

Irish rock star Paul David Hewson (aka Bono) recently advocated for a faith filled with skepticism and a deep yearning for answers. He said the only way we can approach God is, if we’re honest, through metaphors and through symbols. So art becomes essential, not decorative, he said. 

In our religion we use words, movements, gestures, music, art and architecture to launch us into an experience of God and a concern for the needs of one another. Ordinary things like fire, bread, wine, water and oil help us embody the Creator Spirit still at work in the universe. Elizabeth Johnson believes that Spirit is “within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying and renewing circle of life and the whole universe itself.” [1]

Today we begin a post-Easter trilogy of feasts (Pentecost, the Holy Trinity and the Body and Blood of Christ). Thinking about what the musician Bono said — that all the arts are essential in our approach to God — I see architecture as an artistic framework for helping us grow more deeply in our relationships with God and each other.

The first century master builder Marcus Vitruvius Pollio described buildings as functional, stable and beautiful. I invite you today and the next two Sundays to imagine with me Pentecost as an example of a functional church, the Holy Trinity as an expression of a stable church and the feast of the body and blood of Christ as a reflection of a beautiful church.

Pentecost began as a Jewish feast also known as Shavuot. It still is a time when Jews gather to thank God for the fruits of the harvest, the giving of the Laws at Mt. Sinai and the establishment of Israel as God’s people. In the Christian context the celebration of Pentecost marks the establishment of the church, its foundation and its expansion. That early church was not intended to be an exclusive club but a supportive community for everyone regardless of what they looked like, what language they spoke or where they lived. 

In order to develop and survive, the first century church had to function efficiently and with tenacity. Today’s second reading reports that the founding members used one another’s skills, gifts and talents to advance the mission of Jesus. And, they were all given to drink of one Spirit. That same Spirit moves the church and makes each Christian a person, different from [one] another, but who also creates unity among everyone. (Pope Francis, May 19, 2016)

Scripture scholar John Kavanaugh reminds us that “The “catholic” dimension is holistic, organic, and integral. We come from a people whose encounter with Jesus Christ is inclusive and capacious.” [2] There is room for everyone in the church. When someone is denied the freedom to develop his or her gifts, the common good of the church will suffer. [3] 

The many different languages described in today’s texts suggest that all of our voices are very important in advocating for the unity, equality, justice and peace that Jesus dreamed of. Each of us is entrusted to bring that vision into reality — by loving God and our neighbors as ourselves. 

Pentecost is about a liberated future that God has promised. In the words of theologian Walter Brueggemann, “What a stunning vocation for the church, to stand free and hopeful in a world gone fearful … and to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact.” [4]

Today we celebrate our confidence that, with our help, the holy Spirit can eliminate boundaries that keep us from living freely and without fear. That holy Spirit, with our help, can tear down walls that separate us from one another and our dreams. 

That same Spirit has the strength to rebuild faith filled communities like ours to provide shelter, food and companionship for others who desperately need us. With that Spirit guiding us we can learn to function together as a church, a community that is constantly evolving as a witness of possibility, freedom and justice for each and every human being.

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  1.  Johnson, Elizabeth. Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. ( NY: Continuum) 2008, 189.
  2.  Kavanaugh, John F. The Word Encountered: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996) 72-74.
  3.  Karban, Roger. “Holy Spirit, Always Causing Confusion.” The Evangelist. May 12, 2016, p.8
  4.  Florence, Anna Carter (Ed.) Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011) 115-16.