Let us Look: Christ takes up His cross

 

As previously stated, one of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a unique set of Stations.

We were invited to consider kataphatic contemplation while at the last session of the Academy. Kataphatic contemplation uses works of art or bits of nature as invitations to contemplate the divine. I was drawn to the fifteen (yes fifteen) stations of the cross which were created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. They are quite beautiful and have been rather interesting to ponder.

Last week’s reflection was on the first station of the cross entitled “Jesus is Condemned.” The post ended up reflecting on how we all must choose how to react to Jesus.

“Christ takes up His cross” by Timothy Schmaltz

This week’s image is entitled “Christ takes up His cross” and was dedicated to a gentleman named Bob Ashman. As previously stated, the four stages of contemplation that I am using for this particular exercise are as follows:

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

As I show up with this piece of art, I find myself drawn to the imagery of the Roman soldiers surrounding Jesus. The soldiers are strong and burly men. Jesus’ arms are being lifted up to hold the bottom of the beam which will eventually be attached to his wrists. They seem strong. Jesus seems to need help raising his hands to the beam. Jesus is looking up towards heaven. If I stood in front of the piece, Jesus would be staring right at me. When I was at Malvern, those eyes seemed a bit haunting to me. Here is the beginning of Jesus’ last journey before his death. It is an emotional image.

As I slow down I start to think about what I am seeing in this sculpture. I look to details like the strong muscles on the soldiers, the slighter appearance of Jesus, and it makes me begin to feel a bit perturbed. I notice a detail that tells me a great deal about the story which is untold in image, but familiar to those who have studied the stories.

Unlike last week’s representation of Jesus, this Christ has a crown of thorns. Last week’s sculpture was poignantly without a crown of thorns, which indicated a strong connection with the account from Luke, the only gospel without a mention of the crown of thorns. The crown shows up in Mark 15:17, John 19:2, and Matthew 27:29.

In fact, if a person were to isolate one scripture as the basis of this scene in this scenario, it would likely be the Matthew or Mark passages. Why? In the Matthew passage, Jesus receives the crown of thorns after Pilate’s judgment and before he goes on the journey to the cross. John has Jesus don the crown of thorn before Pilate concludes his questioning.

Mark and Matthew are both filled with events which take place between these two stations. In Mark, here’s how verses it reads in chapter 15, verses 16-20: (Common English Bible)

“The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole company of soldiers. They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him. They saluted him, ‘Hey! King of the Jews!’ Again and again, they struck his head with a stick. They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him. When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.”

The detail of the crown tells me that Jesus has had a hard journey between stations. In all honesty, these actions are the kind of actions that make me want to do anything but watch a passion play. The taunting, the sorrow, the pain, and the brutality of it. To hit someone in the head with a crown made with thorns or even spiky leaves (there is a controversy here which I am not going to wade into), is to do something incredibly brutal. As I slow down and let my knowledge parse what I see, I am brought into a deep place in my heart.

As I stay still with this image, I remember the eyes. The hands may have become too heavy to lift, but the eyes are staring upward in pain. They faced me as I walked that path. They faced me as I walked away from that station. The stillness with those eyes has been deepened by a knowledge of what Jesus has already been through. There is a sense of frailty to Jesus.

As a Protestant, I have this strong idea in my head of Jesus as victor. When I think of Jesus I think of the teacher and the miraculous rabbi. I imagine Jesus calming a storm or confronting legion. I do not tend to focus on these moments. “Let’s rush to the resurrection! Let’s even rush to the tomb.” This place of pain in the life of Jesus is uncomfortable. Even as I write this blog I want to do anything but dwell in this place where Jesus arms, the arms of the Good Shepherd, are raised up to hold a cross that will soon cause him to stumble and fall.

As I sit with this image I think of all the places where I try to run past the difficult parts of my own journey. I think of the times places where I fall short but try to run on past. I think of these moments and I mourn what happened on that day.

As I decide what I will stay with as I go forward, my mind is drawn to a scripture that I read earlier in this week as a part of my personal devotions. 2 Peter 1:3-8 says: (CEB)

“By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. Through his honor and glory he has given us his precious and wonderful promises, that you may share the divine nature and escape from the world’s immorality that sinful craving produces.

This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is a very large part of me what wants to dwell in this image and find a place of sorrow to dwell within forever. Peter’s letter invites me to see things differently though. Jesus has given us everything we need for life and godliness. We are invited to share in life through Jesus.

As Jesus looks upon me, even in weakness, there is still a question of how I will respond. Will I find a reason for shame or an invitation to faith? If I have that faith and put it into practice, might the eyes carry an invitation if I add to my faith this alternative conception of what Paul might call the“fruit of the Spirit?” What would the eyes say if I were to let these things grow in me? What would the eyes say if I were transformed by this act of love?

This journey of contemplation is just beginning. Next week the third station will be posted on Saturday. I invite you to journey and ponder along as we head through these fifteen opportunities for contemplation.

Let us Look: Jesus is Condemned

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a very unique set of Stations.

While we were at the Academy this past July, we were invited to consider the possibility of looking at beautiful works of art as invitations to contemplation. Kataphatic (sometimes spelled cataphatic despite the fact that the Greek root word began with a “kappa”) contemplation and prayer is not very common in most Protestant circles, but even the most pragmatic of Christians has probably felt an invitation to consider what Christ had done when they considered the image of Christ on the cross.

I am seeking to practice a bit more of what Spiritual Director and former Jesuit Wilkie Au called “crabgrass contemplation,” which is a term he admittedly borrowed from the book “Noisy Contemplation” by William Callahan. The four steps of this contemplation are as follows;

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

Showing up is the first step which is recommended in this contemplation. Wilkie shared a joke with us while we were on retreat that illustrated this point beautifully. A person was praying to God and asking why God never answered their prayer. God decided that it was time to address the matter. A big booming voice from Heaven rang out over the person in prayer saying “Aren’t you the one who keeps asking me to help them win the lottery?” The praying person nods their head mutely in astonishment. The voice rang out again saying “Look. I can see you are scared, so I will meet you halfway on this one. Have you considered buying a lottery ticket?”

It is a mildly humorous joke, but it is an even better invitation. If you want to find God in contemplation, you must first show up. Nobody wakes up surprised that they have not learned to speak Spanish if they never study! The invitation is made clearly and it invites us to show up.

Slowing down is the second step to this form of contemplation. I have had struggles with eyesight over the past few years, especially as I have recovered from my corneal transplant since this past March. It can take me a moment or two to focus my eyesight and really see something well. I need to slow down and take the effort to focus if I want to see something. On occasion, I have even found that I need to get out a specialized instrument to help me see which I could never use on the run. You might be amazed at how much more beautiful that robin in the yard looks when I slow down, take out my spyglass (I had one functional eye for a while–binoculars were overkill), and look with purpose instead of rushing through the yard. Slowing down in our faith is one way to focus our minds for contemplation.

Staying still is the third step and one of my least favorite steps in this method of contemplation. I have a very precocious seven year old daughter who likes to run, jump, sing, talk, and make noise. My wife blames me for this part of her daughter’s personality because I used to be that child. My mass is what now uses all of that excess energy, but it can be very difficult for me to slow down in my mind. I want to sing, I want to hum, I want to monologue, and I want to be active. Staying still is the invitation which comes next in this process and it can be challenging, but useful.

Finally, the last step is staying with the thing that we are contemplating. For me this is a different than staying still. I often will find myself in contemplation having the same eureka moment time and time again. One reason this might be a part of my pattern of being is that I often take the first morsel and run off in joy. I never notice what I am missing. This pattern could be likened to being invited to a five-course meal and running off after the salad. We are invited to stay with the item we contemplate.

I wanted to publically practice this form of contemplation with the Stations of the Cross for several reasons. First, I want to model the idea of contemplation within a Protestant context. We tend to be afraid of what John Wesley would have called Romish things, but there is a beauty to considering what Christ has done for us and is doing within us. If a Station brings us to consider the actions of Jesus within the Passion narrative, then should we not consider that a blessing?

Second, I want to spend some time connecting these Stations within the Biblical narrative. Not every station is as firmly planted within the scriptures, but each station expresses a truth which I believe should be deeply embedded within our group consciousness as Christians.

So, without further ado, I invite you to consider the first Station of the Cross located outside of the Malvern Retreat House. The station is entitled “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and it was dedicated to the friends and relatives of the Santoleri family. The artist who created the sculptures was Timothy Schmaltz.

“Jesus is Condemned to Death” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I arrive at this place of contemplation, I consider the truth of contemplation which sits directly in front of me. As Herod sits in a contemplative posture in front of Jesus with crossed hands, so I sit considering the scene in front of me. Jesus stands upright at the base of the stairs upon which the judge sits in contemplation. Jesus waits, looking, and watching.

Biblically, I must admit that I think there’s a dissonance in the story. John 19 states that Jesus would have been flogged, beaten, and crowned with a crown of thorns by the point of his condemnation. Mark’s Gospel in chapter 15 does not have an explicit flogging before judgment is passed, but Jesus would have been bound. Also, where is the crowd? Likewise, Matthew 26 records the scribes and leaders beat Jesus, but there is no mention of a flogging; however, there is a place where Herod sitting on a seat is mentioned. Luke 22 and 23 have mockery, beating, and a fancy robe placed on Jesus, but this scene does not appear so readily. Indeed, Matthew has Jesus washing his hands while sitting on the judgment seat, which is probably as close as we can get to this particular image.

As I slow down and contemplate this scent of Jesus’ life, I am drawn to the inconsistencies with the story. Where is the crowd yelling for condemnation? Where is Barabbas? Why does Jesus appear so very calm? Who should I identify with in this image?

As I stay with the image, the question I ask myself is whether I am in image by intention. Consider for a moment that there is a crowd in this moment. The crowd is you and me. The crowd is everyone who walked this path and slowed down to look. The crowd stares at Jesus from thousands of Stations of the Cross around the world and throughout history. We are the crowd who sees Jesus standing in judgment. We are asked the question: “What would you have been yelling?” Would we be joining in the condemnation or would we have fled as the cock crowed that morning like Peter? Would we have had the courage of the women who would walk the road with Jesus, eventually even being with Jesus as he hung on the cross?

Herod’s hands are grasped together in a form that suggest to me a feeling of angst. I too feel the angst of Herod on considering what is ahead on the path towards Golgotha. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel angst in this interpretation is Jesus. Jesus has prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup would pass, but this is the moment when the prayer is ultimately answered. Jesus will begin his journey towards the cross.

How does this idea stay with me today? I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to wrestle with questions of what I would have done as I watched this scene unfold in front of me. I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to comprehend that Jesus would not have run away like I would have liked to run away. Ultimately, there needs to be a place of love in my heart for the willingness of Jesus alongside the pain of watching Christ suffer.

If we are called to be remade in the image of Jesus, then perhaps a good thing to contemplate is what it means to be willing to enter into love despite the pain it might cause for us. If such a contemplation brings me closer to the heart of Jesus, then such a contemplation is a blessing regardless of what name you claim as a Christian.