Let us Look: Jesus is helped by Simon

Today’s blog post is a continuation of the series on the Stations of the Cross crafted by artist Timothy Schmaltz which is located outside the Malvern Retreat House where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets for our sessions. The series is predicated on the concept that Jesus’ crucifixion is pivotal both in the story of the life of Jesus Christ and in the stories of those who follow Jesus. Romans 6:3 states that everyone who was baptized into Christ’s life were also baptized into Christ’s death. Jesus’ passion narrative has become part of the narrative of our own salvation.

The format which I have been using to contemplate these stations is to show up to the contemplation, slow down into the contemplation, stay still with the contemplation, and finally stay with the contemplation as I go out into the world. Showing up involves not only taking the time to contemplate the imagery but also taking time to center upon contemplation in that moment. Slowing down with the image means lingering into the contemplation past the initial things that are noticeable. Staying still involves pondering the deeper questions that arise, which may or not be comfortable to sit win in the moment.

By my very nature, part of my showing up to a scripture is going through the steps of analyzing the subject. I cannot focus on contemplation until I spend some time going through my preconceptions. As such, a bit of scriptural analysis is the first bit of preparation that I do before going deeper into contemplation.

IMG_0536.JPG

“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

Today’s contemplation takes place within the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John actually states that Jesus carried the cross by himself in John 19:17. To be fair, the gospel of John does not mention Jesus falling either.

In the earliest gospel, Mark 15:21 says that a passer-by named Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, is compelled to carry cross in the verse directly after Jesus is led forth to be crucified. There is no mention of Jesus falling or struggling. Matthew’s description is likewise spartan. Jesus neither falls nor struggles before the soldiers compel a man from Cyrene named Simon to carry the cross in Matthew 27:32. Luke does not describe Jesus as falling before the description of Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross behind Jesus in Luke 23:26.

IMG_0537.JPG

“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

In fact, Jesus is not described as falling in any of the canonical gospels. Simon is simply compelled to carry the cross, which presumably happens because Jesus is struggling. One of the challenges that Protestants often have with the stations of the cross is that there are large portions of the stations which are not described in the scriptures. The stories which are passed down from generation to generation often are not seen as binding or authoritative as the canonical scriptures.

This place of struggle with what is canonical and what is inspired by oral tradition is where I find myself as I show up to this station. I did not mention that neither of the previous stations were outside of canonical scriptures for the past two weeks, but that has been weighing on my mind. As I slow down in this moment, I find myself drawn to contemplation around both the idea of what is canonical and what is important to know as we seek after Christ’s face.

IMG_0538.JPG

“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

Pondering these three images of this station of the cross, I find myself drawn to the imagery. Simon of Cyrene is compelled to help Jesus, but Simon does not seem angry about this task in Mr. Schmaltz’s depiction. Simon seems willing to help a man who is already about to collapse. He seems willing to use his strength, which is a good thing as all of the gospels depict that Jesus has already been through a lot on this journey. He appears bent over by the weight of the cross and it is a minor miracle Jesus does not fall every other step with the robe that Mr. Schmaltz has placed upon Jesus. He ’s bent over by the weight of things.

We are often obsessed with the canonical story as Protestants. We are a people born of a strange time in the history of the church. We are a bit sensitive about these matters, but some of these stories make sense. If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would fall after what he has been through? If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would need a hand? I was taught in seminary that Jesus died fairly quickly as some crucifixions could last days. The evidence of time shown in the scriptures shows that Jesus was already in a fairly dicey condition.

As I stay in this moment, I am drawn to contemplate the reality of things. Jesus taught his disciples to do for other people what we would like them to do for us. Jesus has a moment here in his passion narrative where the great teacher has his teaching lived out in his own experience. Who wouldn’t want a hand in a moment like the one Jesus is experiencing? Who wouldn’t be grateful for the gift offered by the man of Cyrene named Simon?

I think that is perhaps what will stay with me as I leave behind this period of contemplation. We are taught to do for others what we would like them to do for us. Simon of Cyrene blesses Jesus by doing something that Jesus is unable to do. He offers Jesus a treasure of a gift, even if it might have been compelled.

Perhaps our role as grateful Christians is to pay forward the kindness of Simon of Cyrene. I wonder what burdens people are collapsing under in the lives around me. How could I be a blessing like Simon of Cyrene in my community, in my family, and in my world? How can I use my strength to do for others what I wish someone would do for me if I were in their shoes?

 

Let us Look: Jesus Meets His Mother

For the past few weeks I have been posting reflections on the work of the artist Timothy Schmaltz which is found outside the Malvern Retreat House. The Malvern Retreat House is where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets every three months.

The point of the reflections have been to go deeper into the passion narrative. I have been following a pattern through these contemplations. I seek to show up, slow down, stay still, and stay with each image. Each area of contemplation has led me deeper into each image, so I have been careful to attempt to do all four steps with every meditation.

As I show up with the image, I take the time to be aware of who I am as a person. My own perspective will change the way that I see the station, so I seek to find out where I am in relation to this image as I arrive in this place of contemplation.

The first thing I am aware of in my own life is my tendency to rush past these contemplations. I believe this is partially because I want to move forward quickly, but I am also aware of my own tendencies to always rush past these types of moments. As a self-identified Protestant, I have found myself willing to rush past the passion into the resurrection. I cannot say every Protestant rushes through the passion narrative, but I have the tendency to rush.

The time that I have personally spent with the cross has been time spent either pushing a theological agenda or marching through to Easter. In my earlier days, I would describe the cross as a bridge. I would stand on one side of a giant chasm, eternal life would stand on the other, and I would describe the gap as the place where sin leads to death. A cross would be placed between the two and there would be a bridge. Theologically, I still believe that there is a lot of truth in this illustration, but I would rush over the bridge both in my own description and in my own reality. I do not enjoy time thinking about Jesus’ suffering and I do not want to ruminate on thoughts of Jesus’ suffering, even if I know that such ruminations may bear fruit.

The cross is uncomfortable as it was the place where Jesus suffered. The cross continues as a symbol of a place of sorrow and a place of pain. In today’s contemplation I find myself drawn to an understanding that I am not the only one who sees the sorrow in this moment in time. The station today is entitled “Jesus Meets His Mother.”

“Jesus meets His Mother” by Timothy Schmaltz

“Jesus meets His Mother” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I slow down with this image, I find myself drawn into the imagery. There’s a real sorrow in this station. Jesus has been held for generations of Christians as being fully human and fully divine. Jesus had a mother and today’s image has her clinging to her son’s chest in sorrow. Jesus, as her son, reaches down to hold her as well. Although Jesus holds her, I wonder if he thought of the times she had held him in his infancy and childhood. I wonder if Mary thought of the times she kept Jesus safe by holding him in her arms.

Mary can no longer protect Jesus. Jesus cannot avoid the path that he must tread. There’s a profound sorrow in this image that strikes me deeply. As I stay still with this image I find myself thinking about my own children and my own mother. Could I honestly imagine what it would be like to hold my daughter as she went to her death? The sentence has been announced and Mary will lose her son at the end of his journey. He is going to die.

Even if she has a hope in his resurrection, nobody would want to watch their son go through this kind of pain. In my own contemplation I am drawn back to my younger daughter Joy at the hospital around a year ago. She went into surgery for a tonsillectomy without any real concept of what pain she would be going through in the next few days. She thought her immunization shots were awful. I remember her cries of pain after the surgery. I remember holding her close to my chest as she wept in pain. I remember the feeling of absolute helplessness that I felt while I held her tight and wished the pain away.

Was Mary having such memories of the first time Jesus stubbed his toe, got picked on by a neighbor, or had a rough day? Did she feel the hot bruises on his body? Did she see the blood pouring from her son’s forehead? Can you imagine the sorrow she must have felt? I could not wish this fate on any parent.

As I think about what will stay with me about this contemplation, I think it is a deep appreciation for what Mary went through as a parent. I will hug my kids extra tight tonight as they go to bed. I will think about what Mary went through and I will mourn the sorrow of her pain. Thank God that Easter happens, but can you imagine dwelling in that loss for three days?

Let us Look: Jesus falls for the first time

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that the session I am attending is located at the Malvern Retreat House. The Academy is located in some fairly beautiful scenery. For the past few weeks I have been journeying into the concept of contemplation by spending time with the Stations of the Cross located near the Retreat House. In particular, I have been trying to explore how the statues in that particular set of stations lead me to go deeper into the scriptural narratives of the passion narratives of the four gospels.

This week I am spending time with the third station on the journey. I have previously blogged about the first station which depicts the condemnation of Jesus. I have also blogged about Jesus taking up his cross for the first time. This third station on the journey was also created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. I will admit that I think this particular statue is a bit…cartoony in the depiction of Jesus’ fall. I continue to be unable to see how it would be possible to fall in the particular method depicted. This week there are two angles we can use to ponder the image.

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

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 meditation, I find myself drawn in memory to a conversation with a friend I made at the last session of the Academy. We had conversed about how the statue did seem a bit humorous. Jesus is flying through the air in this statue. The cross has struck him right in the gut.

I am struck by the power and influence of memory upon contemplation. There is absolutely no way that I could contemplate this image without acknowledging the laughter and joy that came out of the conversations revolving around this statue. There certainly is a point where laughing at a depiction of aa serious event like this seems sacriligeous, but the laughter comes from a place of joy and connection. Acknowledging the distraction is part of showing up in this moment. It is also important to realize that when you try to avoid thinking about something, it invariably is the only thing you can think of in the moment.

Distractions are a regular part of my devotional life in general. In my devotions I copy out the scripture of the day by hand into a journal to make sure I am being mindful of all of the words before returning to read the passage aloud. In copying scripture I often find myself thinking about other things, much like I am thinking about how it is possible to fall in the way Jesus is portrayed in this statue. I learned to acknowledge my distraction, make a note if needed, and then set it aside. Distractions come in a life of faith. What is important is how we deal with them when they arrive.

I am still drawn to the humor as I slow down into contemplation, but my focus changes. How could such a thin cross cause such an effect? How could it throw Jesus in such a manner? Perhaps Jesus is thrown so violently as this is the moment when the weight of what is coming to pass finally falls. There will be no avoiding the effect of this journey—Jesus’ strength will fail and Jesus will die at the end of this journey.

Perhaps the person who should be struck in the gut hardest by this moment is the person who views this statue. As light as the cross appears, to fly through the air and land on one’s back is a pain most of us have experienced. Most of us know how it feels to be absolutely out of control, flying through the air with no idea how we will land. These are the things that Jesus went through in those hours. Jesus had events go out of his control. The cross would force him to the earth three times.

I stay still with this idea of helplessness. As spectators, we can no more control what Christ went through than the Jesus who is flying through the air. The God of the Universe comes down to earth, enters into creation, lives into adulthood, and ultimately is brought to a place where the creation God loves looks on while loading Jesus with uncontrollable and ultimately uncarryable burdens.

This helplessness comes about at God’s own choice. God’s love for creation and for me was so great that Jesus underwent this helplessness to fulfill all righteousness. The great high priest of Hebrews brings the sacrifice and the sacrifice is personal, costly, and painful. Although Jesus will come to sit down with the job completed at the end of this journey, at this moment Jesus, who prayed for this cup to pass, is helpless as much before God’s love as the weight of this cross.

Perhaps the cross is so thin because it is not really the cross that is the heavy burden Jesus must carry. God’s love demands that Jesus give all in this moment. What heavier burden is there in this life than to lay down one’s life for the very people looking on with anger because you love them?

As I consider what will stay with me this day, I think the thing that will stay deeply and closely with me will be the very idea that God’s love is what bore Jesus to the ground. As much as I sometimes get caught up in the world around me, I find myself hoping that I am not the one who sits on the edges of the crowd. Are my frailities and faults part of what bear Jesus to the ground? What greater love is there than the fact that God loves me enough to not only forgive my weakness but to welcome me home?

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.