Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blessed John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico) (c. 1400-1455)

The patron of Christian artists was born around 1400 in a village overlooking Florence. He took up painting as a young boy and studied under the watchful eye of a local painting master. He joined the Dominicans at about age 20, taking the name Fra Giovanni. He eventually came to be known as Fra Angelico, perhaps a tribute to his own angelic qualities or maybe the devotional tone of his works. He continued to study painting and perfect his own techniques, which included broad-brush strokes, vivid colors and generous, lifelike figures. Michelangelo once said of Fra Angelico: “One has to believe that this good monk has visited paradise and been allowed to choose his models there.” Whatever his subject matter, Fra Angelico sought to generate feelings of religious devotion in response to his paintings. Among his most famous works are the Annunciation and Descent from the Cross as well as frescoes in the monastery of San Marco in Florence. He also served in leadership positions within the Dominican Order. At one point Pope Eugenius approached him about serving as archbishop of Florence. Fra Angelico declined, preferring a simpler life. He died in 1455.

Reflection on the first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy 30.15~20)

"Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom."

The basic issues
(Reflection by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

It is possible for a person to be carried along in life by circumstances, opportunities and disappointments, while failing to recognize the fundamental issues in life and to make the appropriate choices. The real issue is, what kind of person shall he be and what path shall he choose to be his? The reading from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy places before the fundamental issues and the basic choices we have to make if our life is to have lasting value. "See, today I set before you life and prosperity, death and disaster. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin on you today, if you love the Lord your God and follow his ways, if you keep his commandments, his laws, his customs, you will live and increase... But if your heart strays, if you refuse to listen, .... I tell you today, you will most certainly perish" (Deuteronomy 30: 15-20).

The most radical issue is the choice between obeying God and refusing to do so. As the first reading explains this is, in effect, the choice between life and death. It is the bedrock issue, for the choice has far reaching consequences for this life, and eternal consequences for the next. Our ultimate future depends not on circumstances, but on our own choosing. It depends on the exercise of personal freedom, and not on good or bad luck. During Lent, as from today, let us endeavour to see the fundamental issues in their stark reality. We have a clear-cut choice: to set out to love God by obeying him, or we can refuse to do so. Lent is the favourable time of God's grace to make the right choice and to live it out with our whole heart.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (9.22~25)

And Jesus said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and He must be put to death and on the third day be raised to life." Then He said to them all: "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?"

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

In a very technological age there is a question that would not occur to lots of people as they contemplate the world. It is this: why is there anything at all? For many people such a question simply does not arise. The world is a fact of life and there is nothing more to be said except to investigate it, understand its laws, and then to use it. But it is obvious that just as individual things need not exist because, after all, they come to be and pass away, so too the total ensemble of things — the world — need not exist. So why is there anything, then? Putting it starkly, why is there not nothing, nothing at all? Such a question prompts the thought of the existence of the Creator. Well now, if we shift our gaze from the world to the suffering and evil that is in the world, it is obvious that these sufferings and evils present a massive problem to man. Again, a similar question arises, why is there all this suffering and evil? This ought lead to a great interest in the answer provided by Revelation, that it was due not to the Creator but to the Fall of man at the beginning. This, of course, does not solve the problem because the obvious question is that if God were all-loving and almighty, then could he not have “fixed it all up” immediately — or done something else to free the world from all its suffering? There is not the space to pursue this here because, to begin with, if we grant a loving Creator, we could not fully understand why he permits such great sufferings. But then, our best chance of gaining some light on things is not to pursue a mere philosophical consideration of the matter but to consider things in the light of the person of Jesus Christ. After all, the claim is that this man was God and he suffered enormously. He did not “deserve” to suffer at all. Why was it permitted that this extraordinary Man suffer so greatly? If we look on the world as present in microcosm, as it were, in the person of Jesus Christ — then Jesus Christ throws light on the suffering in the world generally. He is the light of the world. There are two sides to the answer. Jesus Christ suffered manifestly because of sin inflicted on him from without, and it was because of his suffering that the world was redeemed from its sin.

So suffering is indeed a dark, unfortunate and terrible fact. Its origins lie in sin and not in the will of the Creator. As we contemplate the figure of the sinless Jesus Christ on the Cross, this is the first thing that bears upon us. Suffering and evil comes from sin, and this sin is terrible. Its manifestation is the passion and death of the all-holy Christ. That having been said, in a more important sense, the passion and death of Jesus Christ — symbolic, we might say, of the sufferings of mankind — are shimmering with light and joy. It was precisely through his sufferings, borne in a spirit of absolute and loving obedience to his heavenly Father, that the world was redeemed. Has there ever been any other theory proposed to take away the sin of the world? As far as I am aware, no such theory exists. The only comprehensive proposal for mankind’s radical and complete redemption from sin is the Christian one, and this pivots around the sufferings of Jesus Christ. By his passion and death — so extraordinary, so undeserved — he took away the sin of the world, and then set in motion the means to bring this Blessing to all of creation. The one who believes will be saved, he said, and the one who wilfully refuses will be condemned. It is a mighty answer involving an incalculable cost, and yet one that is astonishingly simple for each individual. But it pivots around the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. Why is such suffering permitted in the world? Look at Jesus Christ and ask why it was permitted that he suffer so much. He suffered so much in order to achieve so much. His sufferings brought an eternal Blessing to man. So, suffering — that suffering that flows from obedience to the will of God — is now not fundamentally a Curse, but fundamentally a path to blessings. If we suffer in union with Jesus we shall rise and reign in union with him. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9: 22-25).

If we want to understand man and the meaning of what makes up his life, especially his sufferings, then look to Jesus Christ. He is not only the revelation of God, but the true revelation of man. He stated repeatedly to his disciples that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer in order to enter into his glory. Somehow we must get it into our heads and into our hearts that the path to glory is through obedient suffering. The Cross of Christ is both dark and bright. It reveals the basic source of suffering, but it also reveals what can now be its fundamental consequence. Let us place our hand in the hand of Jesus Christ and walk with him along the path he chose for us.

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