Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art

Art historian James Elkins, in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, tells a story of a sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago titled 14 Stations of the Cross. Elkins teaches at the school and was interviewing students about their own religious-themed art. This Stations was “a large ceramic church, about two and a half feet high” covered with a “gray and white glaze [that] . . . dripped down like sugar frosting on an angel food cake.” Inside, the floor was pocked where the fourteen devotional tableaux of the traditional Stations had been torn away. The artist, an MFA candidate called Ria, explained she had “erased” her depictions of Jesus’ Passion, leaving only the clay structure that housed them. Elkins considered this, then gingerly suggested that, given the deletions, the work really wasn’t a representation of the Stations at all. It was, he observed, not unkindly, more a “large confectionary house, a sugarplum fairy’s house.”[1]

“ ‘Well, to me it’s the fourteen Stations,’ ” the young woman replied, hastening to explain that, though from a Catholic family, “ ‘I don’t believe in all that anymore—the robes, the priests. . . .’ ” So, Elkins queried, why work at all with a motif that represents one of the most solemn rituals of Lent? Ria struggled to articulate her conception. “ ‘There is just something about them, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I want the feeling, something about it … the real part.’ ”[2] One can almost see Elkins’ neutral, knowing nod on hearing this. Later, considering the sculptor and her work, he concludes, “She wasn’t trying to poke fun at anything, or show off her cynicism. She was looking for something in her parent’s religion that she could accept.”[3]

Ria’s tentative grasp of her work reveals the anxiety many young artists feel around religious themes. “Once upon a time,” Elkins writes, “—but really, in every place and every time—art was religious.”[4] We know, of course, this is no longer true. The Enlightenment, the Reformation, modernism, postmodernism—all played their part in estranging art from religion. This happened slowly at first, then, seemingly, all at once. Disillusioned by the Holocaust and Hiroshima, then secularized by the “project of modernism” the 1960s and ’70s, contemporary culture has evolved to a point where the “word religion … can no longer be coupled with the driving ideas of art.”[5] For artists seeking a place within the mainstream art world, this fact has left little latitude for their work to encounter the sacred.[6]

The anecdote about Ria points to another fact, however. Not only does religion occupy a strange place in contemporary art, contemporary art also has expanded the interpretation and application of traditional Christian forms beyond their original ecclesial contexts. This has been especially true of the Stations of the Cross. As an artistic motif, the Stations navigate between church and gallery by surrendering the traditional form while retaining the rich connotations of the underlying narrative. The reinterpretations traverse boundaries and expand upon the ritual’s numinous core.

From Traditional to Non-Traditional Readings

The origins of the Stations of the Cross trace back to the time of Constantine in fourth-century Jerusalem, where Christian pilgrims visited holy sites associated with Christ’s Passion. By the twelfth century, these and other sites formed a settled route of European pilgrimage, and in time the practice was established of walking the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrows,” observing significant points between Pilate’s court and Mount Calvary. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, reproductions of the Way were constructed in Europe at outdoor sites that themselves became pilgrimage destinations. Stations became common inside churches by the end of the seventeenth century, where their use was associated with the granting of indulgences (as they still are). The number and designation of the Stations followed local customs, ranging from as few as eleven to upwards to thirty-seven. It is not certain how the number or configuration we know today was fixed.[7]

For the faithful, walking the Stations of the Cross during Lent is a personal pilgrimage of reflection and penance. While the devotion need not include a pictorial component (all that is required is a wooden cross at each station), the familiar tableaux have come to define the practice. The visual drama of the stations, whether naturalistic or stylized, is meant to stimulate empathic participation in Christ’s suffering. In a sense, each of the fourteen representations functions as a kind of time machine—one looks not at but through them to the historical events of the Passion. Modern artists work to undo this illusion. Their art is always resolutely in the present; it demands a very different conceptual engagement, situating both the viewer and the Stations in a liminal space between ritual and motif.

In 1951, Matisse achieved just this shift with a Stations he produced for a chapel in the south of France. Seven years later, Barnett Newman took on the subject again with the first of fourteen canvases for his series The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, which was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. Countless artists have treated the subject since: elite names like sculptor Michael Kenny, painter Francesco Clemente, theater-artist Robert Wilson, and those unknown many like Ria, most of whom, it’s fair to say, out of aesthetic and cultural motives not related to the Stations’ original purpose. Some, like Wilson, neutralize the religiosity; others find in the Stations a secularly-safe way to engage the divine. The Stations of the Cross have evolved into a container for nearly any inquiry—formal, social, political, or metaphysical.

What follows is a consideration of four artists’ readings of the Stations. First, we will look more closely at the breakthroughs of Matisse and Newman, two seminal examples of the Stations from the twentieth century. In light of their influence, we will then turn to two artists working today: a New Zealand Catholic nun and painter for whom the Stations retain their religious importance, and a New York art photographer who found in the Via Crucis an expression of the sufferings outside his window.

Matisse: The Vence Chapel

Matisse’s commission in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, illustrates the Stations’ expansiveness. In 1947, the painter was approached to design the chapel’s interior by one of the Dominican sisters for whom it was constructed. Matisse, in his 70s at the time, had met Sister Jacques-Marie years earlier when, as the twenty-one-year old Monique Bourgeous, she became his nurse and confidant, and later his model and student. His paternal affection for the nun convinced him to take on the project he would later call his masterpiece. Matisse designed everything in the chapel, from its glorious stained glass windows and portraits of St. Dominic and the Virgin and Child, to the altar, vestments, liturgical objects, even the confessional door.

The Stations [Fig. 1] occupy the chapel’s back wall in a grid-like composition on white ceramic tiles, six-and-a-half feet high by thirteen feet wide, containing three rows of drawings. One reads Matisse’s Stations from bottom to top, beginning in the lower left and tracing a course like an S. There is no outward journey the viewer must make in order to pass from one station to the next. The pilgrimage these Stations invite is entirely within the viewer.

View of the Nave, Stained Glass Side Window and Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, 1948-51 (stained glass & ceramic tile)

Fig. 1: View of the Nave, Stained-Glass Side Window and Stations of the Cross in the Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France, 194851 (stained glass and ceramic tile), Matisse, Henri (1869-1954) / Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France / © 2015 Succession H. Matisse /DACS, London / Bridgeman Images*

In a letter to the priest in charge of the project, Matisse called the Stations “a great achievement for me,” yet allowed they would “dismay most people who see it”[8] for the simplicity of their depiction. “Simplicity” hardly captures the effect; “graffiti-like,”[9] is how one critic saw the stark, schematic figures Matisse created with a stick of charcoal on the end of a bamboo pole. Patricia Hampl described the pathos of the work as “pained, scratching its way to Golgotha.”[10] “The drawing is rough, very rough,” Matisse confirmed in his letter to the priest, “God held my hand.”[11]

I have long admired Matisse’s drawings, yet I admit that at first his Stations left me unsettled. I passed through three stages of discernment before I comprehended the work as the masterpiece I now believe it is. Initially, I considered the composition as a whole, surveying it like a map—establishing coordinates, reckoning the number system, identifying individual landmarks to anchor me in the scene. Then I looked critically at the separate depictions, debating whether Matisse’s drawings were the work of a genius or the marks of an old man. They reveal either the weakened capacity of a hand compromised by age, or the gestural freedom of a seasoned master. (I learned later that Matisse created a series of finely detailed preliminary drawings that he ultimately rejected.)  Finally, surveying the chapel overall, and observing the sublime balance of each detail between reverence and beauty, praise and surprise, all suspicions crumbled. I turned to the Stations a third time. Their deep compassion toward suffering drew me all the way in, opening my perception to the vastness that Matisse in his epistle described as the “great drama … interwoven around the Crucifixion, which has taken on a dreamlike dimension.” [12]

Newman: Lema Sabachthani

Barnett Newman achieved one of art’s most profound interpretations of the Passion with his The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani. Newman was part of that formidable generation of abstract painters who raised American art to international dominance after 1945, in the related styles of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting. His best-known canvases typically feature broad vertical bands broken by contrasting stripes or “zips” extending from top to bottom. Newman’s art makes frequent allusions to his Judaism and Jewish mysticism, roots that run deep even in the fourteen black and white minimalist paintings titled for the Christian Stations and evoking the most dramatic cry of the New Testament.

Stations of the Cross, in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, is made up of fourteen raw canvases, each six-and-a-half by five feet, painted with vertical passages of black or white paint and dark or light zips. The series’ monochrome starkness is at once unsettling and contemplative. Its subject, observed art historian Jane Dillenberger, is “the individual’s encounter with God.”[13] This encounter, Newman wrote in the catalogue for his 1966 Guggenheim exhibition, takes place with the last agonized words of Christ:

Lema Sabachthani—why? Why did you forsake me? . . . To what purpose? Why? . . . This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no complaint. . . . This overwhelming question . . . has been with us so long—since Jesus—since Abraham—since Adam—the original question.”[14]

Newman places the Station’s meaning in the cesura between Christ’s crucifixion and death, in an instant when God’s grace can no longer be assumed. By removing the Passion’s visual markers, the painter—like Elkins’s MFA sculptor—erases “the terrible walk” and replaces it with a meditation on the Stations themselves. “Can the Passion be expressed by a series of anecdotes, by fourteen sentimental illustrations?” Newman insisted in the catalogue. “Do not the stations tell of one event?”[15] As Matisse transformed the Stations from literal to expressive, so Newman remade them from a drama with fourteen scenes to a poem of fourteen lines, a sonnet of existential suffering.[16]

Horn and Michalek: Transformational journeys

Following Matisse and Newman, artists saw their task—and their opportunity—as one of remaking the Stations with each new iteration. I met Mary Horn, a painter and Dominican sister in Oamaru on the South Island of New Zealand, in 2010, not long after she had completed her own Stations of the Cross. [Fig. 2] She had been contemplating a set of Stations in the chapel beside her home, to replace traditional views painted a century earlier by four Dominican nuns. “I wondered what I would do in this new century to speak to people of our time,” she explained of her own work. “This series is simpler and more intimate and somehow speaks not just of the Jesus journey but our journeys, where we encounter many different deaths, and are supported by others, or have to endure alone what is happening in our life.”[17]

MaryHorn_VI-VII-700px[1]

Fig. 2: Mary Horn, Station VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus and Station VII: Jesus Falls the Second Time, from Stations of the Cross, 2010. Images courtesy of the artist.

Like Matisse, Horn simplified the figures in her Stations, stripping them of specificity to underscore their common humanity. The paintings, she avers, speak not only of the Passion but of the 9/11 attacks, that “unspeakable journey that affected us all,” and the suffering that has followed in the years since. “The ‘Way of the Cross’ speaks a hope for us all in the midst of such human-created devastation on so many levels,” she observed. For her, as an artist and a religious, painting is both a form of prayer and mission. “Does art change my idea of God? The short answer for me is yes —a new time requires different images.”[18]

The universality that Horn identifies does not need to be couched in religious terms. Yet the Stations are adaptable to many instances of suffering, particularly those of the individual struggling against authority. This was photographer David Michalek’s conception for his 2002 14 Stations. [Fig 3]  Michalek produced the series in collaboration with formerly homeless men and women affiliated with the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing (IAHH), a non-profit organization located at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Their Stations re-vision the motif as a narrative of deprivation and kindness, redemption and death, among the urban homeless.

Michalek Station 6-ScreenShot

Michalek Installation_Emmanuel Church, Boston-ScreenShot

Fig. 3: David Michalek, Station Six, from Fourteen Stations, 2002, and the series as installed in Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Boston. Images courtesy of the artist.

The work’s central trope, Michalek said in a recent interview, insists that the suffering of the Stations, “is not necessarily in some faraway place, but on your own street corner . . . . This led us to the idea that our Via Crucis would become emblematic not of one man’s walk, of one historical moment, but the walk of all humanity.”[19] Michalek worked with the AIHH members to conceive and reenact episodes from the Stations based on their stories of living on the street.

The artist, who was familiar with the Stations from his Catholic upbringing, used them as “starting points that could become metaphorically expansive.” As an example, Michalek cited Stations IV, V, and VI, in which Jesus meets his mother, then Simon of Cyrene, who helps carry the cross, and finally Veronica, who wipes his face. “These three encounters seemed similar and quite different,” Michalek said, prompting the group to design tableaus around the theme of Christian caritas. “The embrace of the mother is an encounter of unconditional love. Simon is an encounter of a friend who helps get you back on your feet. And Veronica is the example of loving kindness. We asked, ‘How can we fill in the themes with personal experience?’ and from there built the images.”[20]

The resulting tableaux reflected an ethos less of Old Master paintings than photojournalism and street photography. The large images, typically displayed in light boxes, have been shown at the Brooklyn Museum, Yale Divinity School, and other venues. They have also hung in churches, including the nave of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston, an installation that blurred the lines between exhibition and devotion. “The work can live very easily in a church, and people who know how to use the Stations can use these Stations,” said Michalek. “Yet if you come from a different faith tradition, it can still communicate a lot of the ideas essential to the original form without being tied to the dogma.”[21]

Conclusion

The art of Horn and Michalek, like that of Matisse, Newman, and even, in her way, the art student Ria, provide new readings of the Stations. They present various ways the devotion may be reinterpreted, recast, or repurposed; they offer sides of a crystal with as many facets as there are artists. In taking the Stations from familiar shores of tradition, do alternate interpretations undermine the ritual’s religious nature? An analogy from Thomas Aquinas may help answer the question. In reading scripture, Thomas argues, one goes beyond the text’s literal sense to its “spiritual senses,” meanings which flesh out the historical narrative with moral and spiritual implications. Alternative readings are salutary not for their sake alone, the theologian believed; they are a kind of excursion that brings the reader back to the literal word with deeper comprehension. T.S. Eliot expressed this same effect in Four Quartets, assuring us that

“…the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”[22]

Artists rouse us from assumptions and challenge expectations; their new readings increase the resonance of the Stations. Looking beyond the traditional Lenten ritual can lead us, paradoxically, closer to the Passion.

 


Timothy D. Cahill is a cultural journalist and commentator. He was arts correspondent and photography critic for The Christian Science Monitor and a Fellow of the PEW National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. In 2008, he founded a nonprofit initiative to promote the engagement of contemporary art with values of compassion ethics, work that led him to deeper questions of aesthetics, philosophies of virtue, and theology. Prompted by these efforts, he enrolled at the ISM and Yale Divinity School to pursue a master’s degree in Religion and the Arts. He is a candidate for graduation in 2016.

FOOTNOTES

[1]   James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004), 34–35.

[2]   Ibid., 35.

[3]   Ibid., 77.

[4]   Ibid., 5.

[5]   Ibid., xi.

[6]   Needing to draw borders around the elusive term “fine art,” Elkins settles on the “institutional definition” of the art world, i.e., that work “exhibited in galleries in major cities, bought by museums of contemporary art, shown in biennales and the Documenta, and written about in periodicals such as Artforum, October, Flash Art,” etc., to which he adds work engendered by top MFA programs and prioritized by leading scholars in the history of art.

[7]   The traditional fourteen Stations depict scenes from the gospels and incidents from outside scripture (i.e., the three falls and the encounter with Veronica). Typically designated with roman numerals, the Stations are: I. Jesus is condemned to death; II. Jesus carries his cross; III. Jesus falls the first time; IV. Jesus meets his mother; V. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross; VI. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; VII. Jesus falls the second time; VIII. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; IX. Jesus falls the third time; X. Jesus is stripped of his clothes; XI. Jesus is nailed to the cross; XII. Jesus dies; XIII. Jesus is taken down from the cross; XIV. Jesus is laid in the tomb. For a detailed history of the Stations, see the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.

[8]   “Matisse to Father Couturier, 27 February 1950,” in Henri Matisse, Marcel Billot, Michael Taylor (trans.), The Vence Chapel: The Archive of a Creation, (Milan: Skira Editore; Houston: Menil Foundation, 1999), 303.

[9]   Alastair Sooke, “How Henri Matisse created his masterpiece.

[10] Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006), 200.

[11]  Matisse, et al., 303.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Jane Dillenberger, Image and Spirit In Sacred and Secular Art (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 104.

[14]  Barnett Newman, Barnett Newman—The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966), 9.

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  A fifteenth painting, Be II, was exhibited by Newman at the Guggenheim show and has been seen with the Stations of the Cross ever since. Containing a thin band of red along its left edge, it is both a contrast and a companion to the black and white Stations; scholars debate as to whether it should be considered part of the cycle or not. There are those who contend a fifteenth station should be added to the Via Crucis depicting Christ’s resurrection; the question of affinity between the proposed additional station and Newman’s Be II is also subject to interpretation.

[17]  Statement from personal correspondence with author, February 2015.

[18]  Ibid.

[19]  Interview with author, February 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  From “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 19091962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 222.

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Recommended Citation: Cahill, Timothy. (2015) “Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 10. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu

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Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus

What do we do with biblical texts that are both vital to the life of the church and harmful to another religious tradition? To put it another way, how do we unleash the power in the story of the Passion of Jesus while acknowledging that this story has also served as raw material for harsh depictions of Jews as enemies of Christ, and thus of Christianity?

How do we teach sacred texts that have been used sacrilegiously? How do we expose the shadow side without blocking the light?

Context

The accusation that Jews are implicated in the death of Jesus suffuses the New Testament, most explicitly the Gospel of John, but also the other three canonical gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul, of course, approaches the death of Jesus from many perspectives beyond who is responsible for the Crucifixion.

These texts, particularly the Passion narratives, are proclaimed in Christian worship; as scripture, they are sacred and normative writings. They cannot merely be set aside. Entire liturgical celebrations are built around the story in those Christian traditions that observe Holy Week.

Further, the fundamental plot line of these texts is widely known, even among those largely unschooled in the Christian tradition. Although its underlying argument is the more abstract claim that Jews “rejected” Jesus, this allegation comes alive through a drama of good versus evil, of innocent suffering and ultimate vindication. The characters are memorable, especially the villainous ones (e.g., Judas, Caiaphas, the chief priests and elders of the people, “the Jews”). Scenes from the various Passion narratives have dominated Christian art, been enacted in Passion plays and films, and been a staple of sacred music. One need never have picked up a New Testament to know the basic contours of the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the events leading to it. Or you could pick up Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Jesus.

Yet, while familiar with the plot of the Passion story, relatively few Christians are cognizant of its consequences for Jews. In part, this stems from the demographic reality that most Christians in the world do not encounter Jews in their daily lives. As a result, the church’s relationship with Judaism seems tangential to their practice of Christianity. In some respects this is understandable, particularly in communities overwhelmed by poverty and violence; their degree of dislocation is already so severe that further immersion in the shadow side of the tradition could be paralyzing. Yet it is also likely that Christians in such communities, typically lacking the resources and opportunities for knowledge of the history, will therefore continue in the inadequate view of Judaism that has been part of the tradition. Still others prefer to look away from our tradition’s shadow side, lest it give credence to contemporary secular critics who revile theism, claiming that “religion poisons everything.”[1]

But whether or not Christians encounter Jews in their daily lives, we are obliged to honor the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16 and Deut. 5:20).

To put it plainly: Christians have used texts to bear false witness against Jews, albeit often because they assumed that the texts were factual. In this graced moment in history, however, we have both the resources to read ancient texts in new ways and the ethical obligation to do so. This is not a matter of rewriting but of rereading and reinterpreting them.

Framework

Thinking pedagogically about how to help Christians confront the shadow side of our tradition gave rise to a threefold heuristic of “tellings”: a trembling telling, a troubling telling, and a transformed telling. These three tellings structure the three major sections of my book, Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians. A word on each of them:

Trembling Tellings. Stories of Jesus’s death lie at the core of Christian identity. They offer an encounter with his experience of the human condition: betrayals by those closest to him, his own fear of death, uncertainty about God’s will, and the endurance of terrible suffering and an ignominious death. These stories cause us to “tremble, tremble, tremble,” as the great spiritual “Were You There?” expresses it. Moreover, the dying and rising of Jesus lies at the center of Christian liturgical life, spirituality, creeds, and doctrines. It has evoked centuries of reflection, given rise to meaningful rituals, inspired art and music, been the subject of theological exploration, motivated persons to sacrifice themselves for a cause greater than themselves, and sustained persons through times of suffering. The stories of Jesus’s death lie at the heart of what is sacred in Christianity.

Precisely because of their sacredness and the manner in which many Christians hold them dear, one must first acknowledge the power that these stories hold in various communities: the Passion as a symbol of resistance to evil, including protest against violence, racism, torture, poverty, and militarism; the Passion as a mirror of people’s suffering; and the Passion and Resurrection as the Paschal Mystery at the heart of Christian life. There is even a crucifix scratched on the wall of cell #2 in the infamous “Death Block” of Auschwitz I, a place of torture and death primarily for non-Jewish political prisoners.[2]

These are stories “rightly told.” Redeeming Christianity’s sacred story first requires respect, even awe, for its power for good.

Troubling Tellings. Yet these “tellings” have also glorified suffering, condoned passivity in the face of violence, and constricted the meaning of Salvation by associating it only with Jesus’s death—as if his life and ministry held little meaning. These “troubling tellings” are the subject of considerable reappraisal today, particularly among feminist theologians. Yet insufficient attention has been paid to an even more troubling telling: misinterpretations of the Passion narratives that have rationalized hostility to and violence against Jews as “Christ killers.” This sacrilegious telling cries out for redemption—an unfinished task for Christians.

The key move here is to connect the texts, their interpretations and their effects—Wirkungsgeschichte, the history of a text’s influence over time. Dorothee Sölle terms this a “hermeneutics of consequences.”[3]

Those who become more aware of the power of the Passion story must then confront its deadly aspects by looking closely at the way in which it has functioned over the centuries. This critical assessment involves examining New Testament texts about the death of Jesus that provided raw materials for hostility towards Jews. It then follows the way in which Christians have interpreted those narratives in apocryphal texts, commentaries, sermons, formal teaching, and popular culture. It also involves probing the element of continuity between Christian teaching and preaching and the Holocaust.

Transformed Tellings. But respect and critique must be complemented by reconstruction. This reconstructive task is multifaceted. It involves drawing on contemporary modes of biblical scholarship that shed new light on the historical circumstances of the death of Jesus, especially the way in which crucifixion functioned in the Roman Empire as a mode of state terrorism to intimidate subject peoples and slaves into passivity. It requires exploring complicated matters of religious identity in the early centuries of the Common Era. It also entails formulating principles for interpreting New Testament texts in our time.

Moreover, we must make connections between Christian spirituality and a willingness to acknowledge the historical wounds that Christianity has inflicted. This requires a kind of vulnerability that refuses to be defensive in the face of disquieting truths. Facing our history—being responsive to it—involves dying to notions of Christianity that see it as only a force for good in the world.

Facing the tragic consequences of our troubling texts and seeking interpretations that are more just goes to the heart of the Passion. Michael Barnes, a scholar of the religions of India, suggests that the experience of Christians learning to relate to the religious Other mirrors Christ facing death.[4] In the language of Christian spirituality, interreligious encounter is an experience of the Paschal Mystery, a dying to the small, protected world of the self and a conversion to the “providential mystery of otherness.”

Writing Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians has given me greater appreciation for the depth of Christianity’s sacred story, and the obligation to live daily the process of redeeming it—and in that process, rediscovering the Cross of Jesus amid the crosses of history.

 


 

 


Mary Boys is the Dean of Academic Affairs and Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A Roman Catholic and a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names, she has a longstanding interest in liturgical and pastoral interpretations of Scripture.

FOOTNOTES

[1] See Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009).

[2] See Teresa and Henryk Świebocki, Auschwitz: The Residence of Death, trans. William Brand (Kraków and Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Bialy Kruk, 2003).

[3] Cited in Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 91.

[4] Michael Barnes, Theology and the Dialogue of Religions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 207.

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Recommended Citation: Boys, Mary. (2015) “Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 4. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

 This sermon on John 18:1–19, 42 was delivered at St. Thomas More Chapel and Center at Yale University on Good Friday, March 29, 2013.


“And there they crucified him.” The lengthy Passion narrative with its betrayals, sufferings, and the host of people who crowd the narrative—disciples, Judas, soldiers, guards, a high priest’s slave named Malchus, Annas, Caiphas, the gatekeeper-maid, Peter, another slave of the High Priest, Pilate, the two who are crucified with Jesus—all of this turmoil comes to a halt in one short sentence: “And there they crucified him.”

It will not be long before another short sentence brings the whole of Jesus’s earthly life to its close: Jesus “hands over his spirit.” He tastes death. Jesus, the human face of God, who entered our human existence, experiences the end of that existence.

On one level, Jesus’s death is simply the other end of the arc that began with his birth: He truly became one with us, in being born. He truly now becomes one of us in dying. Granted, this death came at a relatively early point in life—but then, so do many deaths in our world. And yes, Jesus’s death did not only come early and was violently inflicted; it was also exceedingly painful, indeed torturous. Yet Jesus’s death was probably no more torturous than the dying of a young woman on a bus in India some months ago. The young woman had been abducted, repeatedly violated in the most brutal, dehumanizing ways imaginable, savagely beaten and then left to die.

Why, then, have people for close to two thousand years gathered around the story of Jesus’s Passion and death? And why do we continue to ask each other, in the words of the song we will soon sing: “Were you there?” “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The answer for all of us after all is: No. We were not there, two thousand years ago. Yet the liturgy of Good Friday labors, as no other liturgy in the year, to render present Jesus’s dying in our midst, to make it coterminous with our own lives. I suggest to you that in doing so, this liturgy is seeking to embody a particular truth: Good Friday is about being there, about being present, about com-passion, and suffering with. As it was on that Friday so long ago, so it is also today.

Some months ago I was struck by the report of a conference on palliative medicine. The conference focused on doctors caring for terminally ill patients. One of the presenters reported that many doctors feel compelled to “do something” in the face of death, often in the form of continuing aggressive treatments, although the doctors themselves know that those treatments are futile. The palliative care expert suggested that instead of “doing something,” one’s calling might rather be this: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

I myself by now am old enough (and have lived in this culture for long enough) to have heard many Good Friday sermons that preach the opposite, namely: “Don’t just stand there, do something: go, give, share, love!” No doubt those are crucial imperatives. Yet there is a danger if they become the only and the whole truth we embrace on Good Friday. Why? Because this message—“Do something!”—suggests that simply being there, standing at the foot of the cross, is an inadequate and poor response. We need to do something, so the thinking goes, for Jesus’s death to be meaningful—as if Jesus’s death on the cross were meaningless, unless we ourselves give it meaning.

In and for this liturgy on the Friday of the Passion of the Lord, I suggest to you that, on the contrary, it is not us and our doing that give meaning to Christ’s death. God has already done that, when God faced down dying and death on Good Friday and on Easter morning spoke a powerful “no” to the finality of the death of Jesus. That act, that doing of God—rather than our own—is the ultimate word on the meaning of Good Friday.

Our calling in this liturgy is to let Christ’s death give meaning to our lives. And, for that to take place, our presence, our “just standing there” is all the liturgy asks of us. Yet this is no easy task. “Just standing there” actually is a profound challenge, especially for people like us. We do not just want to stand there, and that with empty hands. We want to do something, and move into action. If nothing else, such action at least lessens and covers our own feelings of helplessness. Yet, “just standing there”—truly being present to the agony of the other and to our own helplessness in the face of it—is the calling of this liturgy. It is also what those few disciples did who did not flee: Mary the mother of Jesus, the beloved disciple, the other women at the foot of the cross. What, after all, can disciples do when the feet of the one they were following are nailed to a cross? These few disciples remained at the feet of Jesus and the foot of the cross, standing there in com-passion, in suffering with. Such presence, such real presence, is our calling too, in this liturgy. The doing will follow, and more deeply, the deeper we have been present to the agony of the cross.

Where is the Good News in this? The Good News, for our “being there,” is that Good Friday is not primarily about remembering as a form of thinking back. Rather, Christians believe that the One who was crucified and died is also the One who continues to live in our midst as the Risen One. The Friday of the Passion of the Lord, after all, is not really about remembering the death of a good, decent, wrongfully convicted human being; it is about so much more. Good Friday reveals God’s gift of God’s self unto death for the life of the world, a gift that gives meaning to our lives and redeems, not only us but the whole cosmos.

What would it mean, then, for you simply to practice presence in this Good Friday liturgy? To let the meaning of your life—its deepest mystery, its places of profound pain where quick fixes are impossible—reveal itself as you stand under the cross, as you venerate this cross as the place where the feet of Jesus, whom you seek to follow, were brought to a halt. Simply stand there for a moment, at the foot of the cross. And hear your name being called from this place of presence: Mary mother of mercy; John beloved disciple; Elisabeth my sister; Carolyn my friend; Father Eddie and Father Bob; Katie, Janet, Stefan, Teresa . . . Know that your very being is redeemed and made whole at the foot of the cross and in the presence of the Crucified One.

 


Teresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.  Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of theological and liturgical studies with gender theory. Her publications include Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History; Dissident Daughters: Feminist Liturgies in Global Context; and Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women.  She has also written on the hymns of Charles Wesley and on the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival. She was editor of Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace, essays from the 2011 ISM Liturgy Conference.

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This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Berger, Teresa. (2015) “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 3. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Psalm Singing in Roman Catholic Liturgy

Before the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholics were an unbiblical people. Today, all that has changed and the scriptures are familiar to regular churchgoers. Two major factors in making this transition have been the use of vernacular translations and the reintroduction of the Responsorial Psalm into the Mass after an absence of over fifteen hundred years.

With the Responsorial Psalm, the object of the post-conciliar liturgical reformers was to place into the mouths of worshipers the sung texts of brief psalm extracts as refrains, for this was always a sung item in the form in which it flourished in roughly the fifth through sixth centuries. The reason it had died out was because the musicians got hold of it, resulting in its replacement by prolix Latin Gradual chants, which effectively excluded the assembly as the music became more and more elaborate.

The post-conciliar reformers, then, were intent upon engaging the people once again as an integral part of the chant after the First Reading, which links that reading to the Gospel. To aid this, along with the reinstatement of the Responsorial Psalm, has come the reinstatement of the role of the cantor or psalmist (and this in turn has led to the development of the ministry of cantor or leader of song for the entire celebration, not just the psalm).

The classic Responsorial Psalm form consists of a refrain (often called a response) sung first by one or more cantors and repeated by all, followed by a stanza (often of four lines, or two psalm verses) sung by the cantor, with the people singing the refrain after each stanza. The form is called “responsorial” not just because it includes a response but because it is a response (to the First Reading). Not all scholars agree that this is the case, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does include instructions for singing the “Responsorial” Psalm without a response. (Very few people in fact do this.)

Responsorial psalmody developed out of an earlier form in which an Alleluia or other brief refrain was sung by the people at the end of every line of the psalm. The effect was something like a litany, and it is sometimes known as “antiphonal psalmody.”

A large musical repertoire has been generated in different styles over the forty-five years since the revised Ordo Lectionum Missae appeared in 1969. Some have been disappointed that the new Lectionary contains only excerpts from the psalms, normally four stanzas, rather than psalms being used in their entirety (which has in fact happened more recently with the increasing use of Entrance and Communion psalms with their antiphons). Complete psalms are, however, used in the Liturgy of the Hours, where they are bookended with an antiphon before and after. (For that reason this form is often incorrectly known as “antiphonal psalmody,” whereas, in its monastic form, it should be termed “alternating psalmody,” as it is sung by two sides of the choir or church in alternation.)

Anglican and Episcopal churches have also now adopted the responsorial format as a new way of singing the psalms, though not yet to a large extent. In the Catholic Church, the Psallite project has shown the pathway for numerous new variants on the basic refrain-plus-psalm form, and future challenges are emerging in the area of multilingual or intercultural psalmody. The Responsorial Psalm is undoubtedly one of the success stories of the post-conciliar reforms, and one can truly say that the vast majority of congregations now respond enthusiastically to the Psalmist’s exhortation: Psallite sapienter — “Sing praise with all your skill!” (Ps. 47:8).

 


Paul Inwood is an internationally-known liturgist, composer, organist, choral director, author and clinician. His work is found in hymnbooks across the English-speaking world, and he is a frequent contributor to liturgical journals, blogs and forums. He was responsible for the introduction of the music of Taizé into the UK in the 1970s and the music of the Iona Community into the USA in the 1980s. From 1986 to 1998 he was a president of the international liturgical music study group Universa Laus. In 2009 he was named Pastoral Musician of the Year by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

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This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Inwood, Paul (2014) “Psalm Singing in the Roman Catholic Communion,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 10.
Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu/

View article as a PDF: Psalm Singing in Roman Catholic Liturgy