Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Sublime Art of Christian Living

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year A

If you are a connoisseur of art, you would realise that the point of art and painting is not to represent things in the real world as how they should actually look. If this was the case, it would have been much easier to just a take a photograph. Representational art, when it is good, conveys to the viewer not just an idea of what the subject looked like, but some of the artists’ reflection or experience of seeing as well. At least this seems to be part of the reason why representational art has survived and is still valued, even in the age of the photograph, video cameras and of course, camera phones! Even though you may have several albums full of photos of your mother, nothing can substitute a good painting of her. This is because a good painting is not merely a representation of what someone or something looks like, but also a reaction to it. It says more about the subject than its appearance. It shares insights into the human meaning of what it represents.

These reflections on art have a certain relevance to the gospels, especially to the Gospel of John. Its purpose is not merely to give the story of Jesus, but to meditate on its meaning. Throughout the gospel, the historical Jesus is seen from the perspective of the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. All of the gospels are more like paintings than like photographs, but especially John’s gospel. One might say that the Synoptics are more like Western Christian art form: certainly theological rather than merely biographical, but generally straightforward, realistic, narrative and historical. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, is more like Eastern or Byzantium iconography; stylised, with a complex set of symbols, consciously looking at things in the light of eternity, demanding deep personal engagement by the viewer.

Today’s gospel is a good example. The scene is once again the Last Supper, but it is portrayed poetically, not historically. Jesus, who has yet to meet his passion and experience the resurrection, speaks from eternity, from beyond the grave. In Jesus’ sacred, saving hour, a great liturgy of love emerges from the poetry of this prayer. Through his word and in the sacred bread of his body, all are drawn toward the Father to receive life and glory. A major biblical motif, “glory” (kabod) was used in the Old Testament to illustrate God’s goodness in providing for his people in the wilderness; for example God’s presence in the pillar of fire and cloud was called “glory”; God’s saving intervention was described in terms of manifesting his “glory,” and God’s presence as He alighted on the Tent of Meeting, also referred to his “glory.”

So, what did Jesus mean when he spoke of the hour of entering into his “glory”?  Such “glory” is certainly not equivalent to what man often desires - popularity, public acceptance, praises and a good name. Here lies the divine paradox of the gospel - when Jesus spoke of his own glory he was speaking about the cross. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus and his ministry was portrayed as a progressive process of glorification, a process of preparation for the ultimate “sign” – the crucifixion, the culmination of God’s saving intervention in salvation history.

St. Peter must have finally understood the connection between glory and the cross after several failed attempts. At the time of his first letter, the early Christian communities were already experience persecution and suffering for their faith. The cross was no longer theoretical or symbolic, it was very real. And yet in today’s second reading, St Peter writes with great confidence and as a means of encouraging his fellow Christians: “If you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, because you will enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed. It is a blessing for you when they insult you for bearing the name of Christ, because it means that you have the Spirit of glory, the Spirit of God resting on you.”

The other radical twist introduced in today’s passage is that Jesus speaks of eternal life not as some future or eschatological reality, something which you experience only after death. On the contrary, one can experience eternal life in the here and now. According to Jesus, eternal life is “to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. To know connotes the intimacy of an immediate experience rather than cognitive knowledge. Such as, my family knows the real me! Therefore, “to know” God, means to be called into an intimate relationship with the Father, like the one that Jesus the Son already enjoyed. This provides another beautiful layer to our understanding Jesus’ hour of glory. In other words, knowledge of and intimate participation with Jesus in his hour, in his glory, or in the words of St Peter, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, one can already taste eternal life here and now.

Thus, the cross and suffering for our faith, continues to be mark of every Christian, his glory, his path to intimacy with God, to eternal life. Of course, practising our faith today, may not be as dangerous as in antiquity (unless you are a Christian living in the Middle East, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan etc), yet remains challenging, perhaps more challenging than the past. Today, we face a greater danger from modern society – the danger of being ignored or even rejected by secular culture. Its moral values, forced to compete in a free market of ideas, frequently seem unattractive, outdated or simply irrelevant to present day lifestyles.  Many, thus, have given in to the temptation of allowing its core teachings and values to be reshaped and moulded into a more politically correct and socially acceptable version that is to the liking of modern tastes. Social tolerance and relativism has led to the suspicion and rejection of the particularity of the Christian faith and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour. Ultimately, it has led to widespread moral decline, and with that the world suffers the loss of beauty, the good and the Truth.

Christian faith continues to present a different picture of glory, one which requires us to see the world, its trials and tribulations, through the lenses of eternity. It calls the world to transcendence, to appreciate once again the need for beauty, goodness, and truth. But if this message is to be heard, there must be Christians who are disciples that are willing to live out the message of today’s gospel. This means living a life in the world that already goes beyond it and resists being reduced to its conventions. And it is intrinsic to this way of life that it be lived not merely by isolated individuals, but by a community. Thus, the essential need for our BECs, our Basic Ecclesial Communities, to bear witness to the gospel message. Where we reject community living, we in fact reject the gospel, and we become anti-witnesses of its message. Thus, community life should not only communicate a message of about communion and love, but also show its truth and beauty. In this sense, Christian life must be a work of art – it must be sacramental, it must be beautiful. For if the message of Christ’s triumph over death is to be convincing – even to ourselves – we must show in living it that it is beautiful, good and true, that the vision it shares is about what really is, and that apprehending it leads to fulfillment and joy.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.