Monday, March 29, 2010

Alone with

The Crucifixion Rondelle Icon, egg tempera with tooling on wood, 18th century, 14 inches in diameter, Russia.

This icon is one I purchased in the Kapali Carsi in Istanbul while on a trip sponsored by the Episcopal Church to continue conversations between the Anglican and the Eastern Orthodox churches. I went back to it every day for more than a week at the end of every work day. It was in an antique shop and is of Russian Origin. It is a round icon which originally would have fit into an iconostasis- a great wall of icons which separates the Holy of Holy in an orthodox church from the sanctuary. The icon is 17th or 18th century, is wood about two inches thick and covered in a heavy gold leaf, tooled for a celestial texture to imitate the idea of a window into eternity.

I purchased it because I have a deep love of the Gospel of John.

The gospel writers had their misconceptions as they all do, and they confused words like "Jews" when they should have said "lawyers" when discussing the fault of the crucifixion - but we all have our misconceptions don't we. The Gospel of John is stunningly beautiful and celebrates women and love and intimacy unlike any other gospel. It allows Jesus to be as Divine as he is human rather than the other way round. In many holy sites (the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Athos for example) clergy have Bibles which are lacking the Gospel of John. They have ripped them out of their Bibles - not out of shallow loathing but rather out of such a deep love of the Gospel that it is the one they rip from their Bible to give to friends who ask "Why do you love Jesus so much?" or "How do you know God loves us?"

This icon is Johannine (which means "along the lines of John's gospel") because of the way Jesus is portrayed. Jesus is not hanging from the cross. Jesus is layed onto the cross. There is a difference in ideology rather than in form or historical fact. It is true regardless if it is factual. The way his body drapes onto the wood rather than hanging from the nails alludes to a self-offering. Jesus offers himself to the world at noon, while the screams of the butchered sheep can be heard from the Temple compound. And the timing is intentional. "Here, take me if you must but leave the bleeting ones alone! they are scared is all!" Are the bleeting ones sheep? Well, some are.

Jesus had support while he was doing what seemed to be the right thing. Jesus was not alone in that his mother and his best friend and many others did not desert him. And Jesus was not alone in that his prayer and his meditation - that union He enjoyed with God through the hard work of prayer and silence-making meant that He was not alone from God. And yet he was and, in the end, felt - it seems, very much alone. The agony of Gethsemane show a man who felt alone and did not want to do what he was needing to do.

We are all "alone" and yet, also we are "with."

But we are "alone with." Much like Christ, we are loved and even cherished and enjoyed by those we love and whom we love if we work at doing the loving well and with intention. But in the end I think we are still very much alone. We enter the world alone and we leave it alone and we inhabit our body alone. At the crucifixion Jesus is in his body (trapped in it I would say) and is there alone.

It is sad that the Renaissance painters seemed unable to paint a beautiful painting without including a dying Christ in the middle of it. After a few weeks in Florence one can hardly stand to see the crucifixion one more time without a scotch, an advil and a cigarette! But that may be because the image of the crucifixion strips bare the reality that we are alone in our bodies and the desperate attempts we play out to "fix" that infirmity rarely last for long often causing so much harm.

It is amazing what we humans will do and will risk - what we will destroy and whom we will destroy to fix our sadness at being alone.

But the art of being "alone with" seems to make some sense even though it is slow in coming and has its frustrating boundaries. Being "alone with" as Christ is at the cross - alone with Mary (at Jesus' right in blue and dark red), alone with John (at Jesus' left, young and in blue and light red), alone with God (wearing the tooled Gold of eternity stretching out behind them)- this being "alone with' is what makes sense to me and is in high relief at Holy Week.

Being "alone with" is not something I find easy to do. My codependent upbringing can get in the way. But as my spiritual director in Richmond used to say "we are, all of us, in Jesus' little school," learning our lessons by watching his life - trying to live ours in some integrity.

I use to struggle so hard not to be alone. Now, I struggle less with being alone and more with making sure the "with" is well cared for.

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