Of necessity, most of my letters to the clergy have had to do with worship protocols, do’s and don’ts, in pursuit of a balance of worship and safety in this COVID time. A more intrinsically hopeful enterprise, recently, has been thinking about what comes next, about re-remergence, the new normal, the reboot, call it what you will. Here too, we are traversing landscape that does not have a map, which lends the task a certain freedom and excitement amidst the anxiety. We will need to welcome the lapsed anew, and offer the Gospel to those who have confronted existential, ‘why’ and ‘whither’ questions for the first time. We will need to address the generalized trauma across of society, not least among the young. We need to renew our partnerships with Churches in south Dallas, and to get back to raising the question of vocation with young believers. Finally we believe that contemplation, adoration, prayerful silence together, will be an important doorway to the faith in a time into which we move, and in this I look forward to Bishop Michael Smith’s leadership in this regard.
I want to begin with this last point, the need to behold in a sustained way, so as to see anew. We hear the good news, but aren’t the sacraments ways to receive that news through our other senses? In this spirit, meditate with me on where we really are, and what we need next to do, through gazing on two great works of Christian art, by no less a painter than Rembrandt. I am an amateur here, striving to see alongside you.
We are at the beginning of Lent, but at its end, in some of our churches, we will have a service remembering Jesus’ passiontide walk called Tenebrae, the Shadows. This same word describes a strategy in painting, where surrounding shadows thrust the central character, and action, into the clearest view, bathed as they are in light. A shaft descends and drives the shadow away, as in the first chapter of Genesis and the Gospel of John. Look at this etching of the crucifixion, Jesus with the thieves on each side. Your eye is drawn to him, so that now you can really see him, unveiled and translucent.
This vision addresses us in our moment. We are surrounded by restrictions, outside us due to the virus, around us in the conflict and confusion that has beset us, inside us, weariness, anger, grief, and anxiety. We are in the shadow, todo tenebroso. That makes what our faith see stand out. It is highlighted. Even on a laptop, alas, the words of Scripture convey the presence of God Himself. Even oddly packaged, shorn of music, and severed from the fellowship tangible one with another, highlighted is Jesus’ real presence in my ear and my hand. What is most real, so are its circumstances are constrained, is yet more clear and miraculous. Regardless, Jesus moves centerstage. And I mean not simply Jesus as an example, but in the full, deep, mysterious, reality of His death, alone, isolated, burdened by the sin of us all In the power of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to see this, the height and depth, and length and breadth, of God’s costly love for us in the dying and risen Jesus Christ.
What are we to do at this juncture of uncertainty and hope? What we are to do in every such moment. Is there some fix-it strategy? Thanks heaven, no. We are to see the Lord Jesus lifted up so that he can draw the broken and dying world to Himself. Everything we resist and regret becomes the shadow of which the shaft of divine light suffused Him. To see him with new clarity and humility is renewal. Another way to put it is this: we may experience our shared religious life in an alienating way, but this very fact can shift the focus, the light, to the thing itself, what Luther called ‘the great Nevertheless,’ the real presence of Christ in these words and these sacraments, unimpeded by such circumstances.
This light on Him is refracted onto all the pressing matters of our day. He is our peace, in a time in need of reconciliation of races and factions. The heart of the atonement is that He has taken on himself the trauma and the guilt with which people are now burdened. Amidst uncertainty, the crucified and risen Jesus has crossed over: ‘I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever.’ (Revelation 1:18).
Here I can add a more personal note. I, doubtless like you, have had my moments of hitting the ‘COVID wall,’ anxious about the disease where my kids live, flummoxed over the protocols, uncertain about the future of our more vulnerable congregations. I have been reminded of Yeats’ famous line, ‘things fall apart/ the centre cannot hold.’ But it does hold, because He is our centre, prior to, above, and through our fallible efforts.
In the New Testament, the fellowship of the disciples follows the master. The Lord is the head of Body which includes us. In other words, Christ and Church are connected, but in a certain order, and only by His gift. They cannot be disconnected, nor can the Church overtake Him. This is important when we see how flawed, struggling, and divided the Church is. This takes us to our second painting, the stilling of the storm.
Here the spotlight turns to us in our vulnerability. Jesus, unperturbed, is asleep in the stern. In a moment the Lord of creation will still the storm (you can even see the clearer sky on the horizon). But for now the focus is on disciples in a panicked flurry- one throws up overboard, another wrestles with a broken mast, yet another (the painter?) looks quizzically back at us. Struggle they must, though it avails them little.
I do not mean to say that all our efforts are in vain, nor that we could lie back on the cushions and wait for the Lord to still our storm. No, He took us disciples along, and our labor is vain only if we forget that He ‘builds the house.’ (Psalm 127:1) We have our part to play in the renewal and re-opening to come, for He calls us by His grace to cooperate in His work, in the midst of which He also ‘gives His beloved sleep.’ (v. 3). In this perspective, you and I are blessedly invited into the coming months of challenge even if we don’t ourselves know how to accomplish the task Nor do we have sufficient strength for it- Alleluia!
May the Lord bless, preserve, and protect each of you, individuals, congregations, as we approach, and enter, this new chapter.