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THREE CROSSES (1653)
CHRIST PRESENTED TO THE PEOPLE (1655)
Rembrandt van Rijn
John Christman, SSS
Often, the more we know about something, the greater we can appreciate it. This seems to be the case especially with the arts. A jazz musician can listen to a recording by jazz saxophone great John Coltrane and appreciate Coltrane’s performance on a much deeper level than a casual music lover. An architect can find inspiration in and appreciation of the construction and design of the Chartres cathedral on a much deeper level than the average churchgoer.
This in no way takes away from the joy non-experts take in the arts. Art is, after all, for everyone. Instead, this acknowledges the riches of every field and the great ingenuity of humanity. Those who have dedicated their lives to music, architecture, painting, or any other field of expression will certainly find greater appreciation for masterpieces in their field more than novices, without taking anything away from the joy others find. Learning more about a work of art is often the door to greater appreciation.
With this in mind, we turn our gaze to Rembrandt’s etchings. Without question a viewer can gaze upon Rembrandt’s Three Crosses (cover image) and instantly appreciate its sublime wonder. The subtle light breaking upon the crucified Christ that dissipates as it moves through the gathered crowd; the confusion, pathos, horror, and indifference that Rembrandt portrays in the faces of the people; the central mystery of Christ’s passion and death. All of this impacts the viewer almost at an unconscious level; so masterful is Rembrandt’s treatment of the subject.
Artists and printers adept at the skill of etching appreciate Rembrandt’s etching on another level. Rembrandt’s line has such a variety of expression, from gentle, almost lyrical, to bold and emphatic. This sensitivity an artist would appreciate in a drawing, this ability to elicit form and feeling from pencil or chalk on paper. However, this is an etching. The process is at once more arduous and uncertain.
Rembrandt worked mostly on copper plates. These would be covered in a resin that would protect the metal. He would then use an etcher’s needle to scrape lines into the surface. The plate would then be dipped in an acid bath, which would eat into the cut areas leaving the resin covered areas protected. The depth of the line would vary depending upon how long the plate was left in the acid bath. After the plate was removed from the bath, cleaned, and the resin removed, it was inked and run through a press. What is seen on the paper, then, is the reverse image of what is seen on the plate. This intensive process would be repeated again and again until Rembrandt achieved the effect he was seeking.
Now look again at Rembrandt’s Three Crosses. The delicate gradations of grey and black; the manner in which he guides the viewer’s eyes with the gentle light he creates through the accumulation of etched lines; the internal narratives he creates amongst the perfectly articulated figures; even the foliage is rendered painstakingly, leaf by leaf. It is masterfully done.
What does all of this have to do with the liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter that we now embark upon? Certainly, a reminder of Jesus’ great sacrifice and the gift of our salvation is primary, and Rembrandt renders this message as few other artists have. But there is more to it than this. These liturgical seasons are marked by God’s grace and mercy. This can never be appreciated enough, as Pope Francis has emphasized time and again.
However, Rembrandt’s laborious process of creating this masterpiece line by line offers us another insight to consider. The Lenten work of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-building is often a slow, laborious, and challenging process. We may get discouraged when our efforts seem to yield modest results.
But, like Rembrandt’s etching, each thoughtfully placed line contributes in its own way to the final breathtaking image. Our work to help build the kingdom of God may seem modest, yet God will ultimately create the masterpiece. It is one of God’s many gifts to us that we are given the chance to contribute to this amazing work of art. The end result will be more beautiful than anything we can possibly imagine. And God, the great artist, will appreciate on a much deeper level all we have contributed this masterpiece.
The Rich Man
“ . . . it is easier for a camel
to pass through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter
the kingdom of God.” (Lk 18:25)
He can’t mean that! Seriously.
Literally everyone we admire
is in some way wealthy.
would we admire them?
They have something we want.
Not just money;
far from it!
Health, wit, talent. A noble
in adversity. The judicious
exercise of power.
A cheerful disposition.
— What we would call
So the disciples wondered,
(and we wonder):
“In that case . . . who can be saved?’”
Brian P. Flanagan
Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2018
194 pp., $24.95
As the Roman Catholic Church continues to struggle with issues of sexual misconduct of clerics; criminally negligent handling of the same by some bishops; and is accompanied by widespread complicity in structures of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, the arrival of Brian P. Flanagan’s Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church is timely and welcome.
The central conviction of the author, an associate professor of theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, is that “we are called to hold together at the same time two truths about the Christian Church. First, that the church is holy, God’s chosen instrument for the salvation of the world. . . . Second, that the church is sinful, in that as it walks its pilgrimage toward its fulfillment in the reign of God, it stumbles, sometimes spectacularly so” (3-4).
This issue is not new, but one with which the church has struggled with from its beginning. Flanagan offers a review of the past and more recent attempts to understand the paradox.
Inspired by Jean-Marie Roger Tillard, OP, among others, the author begins his treatment of the issue as it appears in the Church’s liturgy, rather than employing a historical-systematic approach. As the privileged expression of the Church’s faith, the liturgy expresses the Church’s relation to the Holy One, along with the admission of its sinfulness and need of forgiveness. Reviewing the major prayers of the Mass, Flanagan shows how “the assembly repeatedly moves toward participation in the holiness of God, all the while being reminded of its unworthiness before God, due to creaturely limitation and to sin, while yet beginning to really participate in that holiness in its pilgrim journey” (26).
Chapter Two clarifies the meaning of “sanctity,” “sin,” and “church.” Refinement of these points is essential to understanding the paradox of sanctity and sin in the Church. Especially helpful is Flanagan’s insistence that the Church is at once “universal” and “local.” Someone searching for a contemporary exposition of these points would find this chapter a gold mine.
Building on previous material, Chapter Three answers “how” we believe the Church is holy and “how” we can say, at the same time, that the Church is sinful. Readers will find a review of the “indefectibility of the Church” and its “infallibility” key considerations.“Have Mercy on Us, Lord, for We Have Sinned.” Chapter Four emphasizes the need for explicit and truthful admission of ecclesial sinfulness. Flanagan discusses sins of members of the Church; those committed by its leaders; the possibility of sin as a collective ecclesial action; and how, either in particular acts or in forms of “structural sin,” the Church as a community can be described as “sinful.” This last point receives extensive treatment, understandably so.
Chapter Five’s title, “Avoiding the Paradox of the Holy and Sinful Church,” takes issue with the position of those who explain holiness and sinfulness in the Church as “The Church being holy, but sinful in its members.” Based on his study of Karl Rahner, SJ, Yves Congar, OP, and others, Flanagan names this position as an ecclesiological mistake. He states that such a distinction posits “an idealized, ahistorical entity called the Church, distinct from the gathered assemblies of the faithful moving through history” (151). This conviction identifies his discomfort with such images as “Holy Mother Church” embracing “her sinful children.”
The final chapter, “Naming the Holy and Sinful Church,” offers a surprise ending which is left to its readers. It also provides five guidelines for discussion of ecclesial sin and sanctity. Guideline 5 (“The church is on pilgrimage towards its full holiness”) summarizes the content of the book. Recommended for readers having some college-level theological training.
Allan Laubenthal, STD
Rector Emeritus, Saint Mary Seminary
Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw
Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press Academic, 2018
248 pp., $29.95
Fans of liturgical study and the great pilgrim Egeria will rejoice in a new translation, commentary, and historical edition. Two excellent authors of liturgical studies, Anne McGowan and Paul Bradshaw, combine their talents to give us this fresh new edition from the academic arm of Liturgical Press.
Egeria took copious notes on her travels, describing in exhaustive detail her visits to religious institutions throughout Western Europe and the holy sites of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Key discussions of this volume explore Egeria’s backstory, including her place of origin, status in the Church (namely, consecrated religious or lay woman), the years her “diary” was written, and her education.
Half of the book is devoted to the historical analysis of Egeria, the other half to the updated translation. Egeria’s translation into English is at the top of the page with commentary at the bottom of the page.
This is a scholarly edition, filled with impressive details from the authors that provide for a great reliving of Egeria’s liturgical adventures. Anyone wishing to learn the history of our Western rite must study Egeria’s rich journals. The Pilgrimage of Egeria: A Translation of the Itinerarium Egeriae with Introduction and Commentary is an exceptional guide — a true map of the spiritual pilgrimage of this light from the fourth century.
John Thomas Lane, SSS
Pastor, Saint Paschal Baylon Church
Highland Heights, Ohio
Thomas J. Craughwell
Charlotte, North Carolina: Tan Books, 2018
216 pp., $24.95
Thomas Craughwell pulls together much information from a variety of sources to provide the reader with stories of Catholic chaplains who served heroically in every war from the Revolutionary War through the war in Iraq.
Some of these chaplains have earlier been memorialized in statuary, plaques, and movies. For instance, Father Francis Duffy, who was a professor at Dunwoodie Seminary in New York and later served as a chaplain in the famous Irish 69th New York Brigade in World War I. His heroism was featured in the 1940 film The Fighting 69th and a bronze statue of him stands in Times Square.
In World War II, Father James O’Neill was asked by General George Patton to compose a prayer to ask God to clear the fog and rain so that he could push on to beat the German advance in Belgium. O’Neill wrote the prayer and Patton had it copied and distributed to his soldiers. They prayed it, and the skies cleared and the army pushed back the German advance. This prayer was memorialized in the movie Patton. Another priest figures in the movie Saving Private Ryan.
On the flip side, there is a priest whose actions did not stand up to Catholic practice. He was immediately recalled by his diocesan bishop when he “baptized” a cannon during the Civil War!
The bulk of the book relates the stories of still more chaplains who were truly heroic in encouraging and counseling the soldiers and sailors under their care. Many, like Father Duffy, lost their lives on the battlefield as they sought to drag the wounded out of harm’s way or knelt to give absolution or the last rites to the dying or deceased soldiers. They also spent incalculable hours in field hospitals, comforting, encouraging, and praying with the wounded.
The author does not specifically articulate the reasons why many Catholic chaplains disobeyed their commanding officers who wanted them to stay behind the lines in order to keep them safe. It was the very nature of Catholic sacraments which prevented the chaplains from remaining out of harm’s way when their men were being wounded or killed. The sacraments of confession and anointing of the sick (last rites) require the priest to be physically near, present. They needed to touch the wounded and the dying as they anointed them and be near them as they absolved them of their sins. They needed to be in the “thick of the battle” as those they served with were being wounded or killed by bullets, grenades, or shellfire. That set Catholic chaplains apart from other chaplains as they were compelled by faith and devotion to do seemingly heroic deeds.
Two Catholic chaplains have recently had their causes for canonization introduced. Father Emil Kapaun served in the Korean War and was captured. His heroism in the camp, in encouraging the prisoners to stay hopeful and getting them extra food — even sharing his own meager rations — became well known after the war. He died in the camp.
Father Vincent Capodanno, even after being seriously wounded in a battle in Vietnam, continued to drag the wounded to safety. His death, according to the soldiers who were with him, was not unexpected as he continuously placed himself in danger to rescue others and to provide them with the sacraments.
There is one section of the book that does not seem to fit: “The War Scientist” (pages 102-106). Craughwell raises the horrific effects of mustard gas in the First World War and introduces Fritz Haber, who invented the Haber–Bosch process critical to the creation of deadly chemical weapons. In these four pages, he uses a form of the word “Jew” eleven times. He then goes on to relate Haber’s post-war achievements and, finally, lists by country the number of soldiers who were injured or killed by this gas. This really had no place in this book.
Craughwell’s short book does a great service in propagating the heroic deeds of Catholic priests who have served as chaplains in our military services. He pulls together and summarizes in this volume information gathered from 45 books and articles written about the individuals highlighted.
Patrick J. Riley, DMin
Book Review Editor