Last Sunday after the Epiphany - February 27, 2022
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Exodus 34:29-35 + Psalm 99 + 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 + Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
I begin my reflections today on a painting of the crucifixion. Yet, one in which there is, in fact, no depiction of a cross whatsoever. Such is the work of the late 19th Century artist James Tissot, whose portrait of the crucifixion you will have received as you arrived today. I invite you now to take a moment to reflect on it.
While most artistic paintings of the crucifixion are meditations on the cross, Tissot’s painting serves more as a meditation from the cross. Here we see a depiction, not of Christ, but of what Christ himself saw hanging, mid-air as it were, between heaven and earth, arms outstretched, as if to embrace the world we see before him.
Mary Magdalene kneels just below his feet, looking up to him with hands clasped somewhere between prayer and incredulity – as if pleading for mercy on his behalf.
Behind her are three women, first among them, another Mary, his mother, clasping her heart in agony as if to fulfill the prophecy of Simeon proclaimed so long ago in the Temple when Jesus was a mere child: “And a sword shall pierce your heart as well that the secrets of many may be laid bare.”
To her right (our left) is the beloved disciple, John, nervously clutching his right hand with his left, powerless to prevent the calamity unraveling before his eyes. Cruel scoffers, callous Roman centurions, and curious onlookers fill the background of the painting, receding into the far distant countryside.
Here, Tissot introduces us to the crucifixion through the eyes of a suffering Messiah. From his perspective we look out upon the creation of his making, we see the world who rejected him, and the precious few whose unflinching gaze of love accompanied him even unto his death.
It is hard for us to imagine such divine humility as we see embodied throughout the brief lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth. What kind of God subjects himself to the imperfect childhood rearing of two of his own creatures? And what kind of God, now facing death (itself an oxymoron), would in that moment seek comfort not in the choirs of celestial angels above, but in the loving gaze of his own creatures below, faithful disciples, who themselves are powerless to change the insidious mechanicians of an empire cold and calculating and unsympathetic.
This is the same Christ of the Transfiguration. A narrative which Luke, uniquely places toward the very end of Jesus’ public ministry, just before the beginning of the passion. The dialogue, unique to Luke’s account, intimately links the two events, as we are told Jesus and those who appear with him—Moses and Elijah “were speaking of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
It is precisely that departure that Tissot is rendering here. And yet the contrast could not be more distinct. There, on the holy mountain of Tabor, Christ descends, like Moses, with a face beaming and radiant: a radiance that would reveal, in no uncertain terms, a Christ who stands far above that of a mere mortal.
By contrast, here at the moment of his departure, Jesus is again lifted high, not upon a mountain, but upon on a cross. Now, not bathed in radiant light but marred beyond recognition as if to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant (52:13-14):
“Behold, my servant…shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—”
Here, upon the cross, the Transfigured One becomes the Disfigured One, whose divinity is revealed now, not in radiant light but in the wounds he bears on our behalf. An image of transcendence so counter-intuitive, as to be recognized, only by those who see him through the unflinching eyes of love. And this, Tissot, captures with marked poignancy – leaving Christ’s disfigurement to our imagination, in order that he might depict instead those faithful, loving eyes whose gaze would accompany Jesus to his death.
And it is here, that John’s gospel tells us, the Church is born. Here, at the foot of the cross, where Christ entrusted the “beloved disciple” to Mary, and her to the disciple. That is to say, the passion, the suffering of Jesus become the very “birth pangs” from which the church – the community of believers in Christ’s name – is born.
The poignancy of this moment should not be missed. The church, we are to understand, is born in the midst of a love unflinching whose very first act is to bear witness to the suffering of God.
Born not, with the trappings of Imperial power, but in weakness, defenselessness, and death.
As Tissot so movingly depicts, Mary and John and the those who surround him do not possess the power to change the outcome of his fate: Jesus will suffer, Jesus will die on the cross, as was indicated at the time of his transfiguration. Their power instead, lies in their gaze. Their capacity to accompany Jesus with unflinchingly fidelity, changes nothing but means everything.
While it is customary for us to speak of Jesus’ “death” on the cross, we must not allow ourselves to forget that he, was in fact, fully alive on the cross. Fully alive, aware, and awake: the pettiness of squabbles he may have had with his disciples, now meaningless. The righteous anger he felt toward those who usurped religion for their own agendas, now subsided. The indignation he leveled at the very empire that was even now executing him – all of it dissipated.
In one simple statement, the last, according to Luke, that he would speak before giving up his spirit, tells of the unvarnished truth – the only thing that matters to one who is facing the immanence of his death: “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)
Here, Christ’s embrace from the cross extends not only the faithful who look to him with eyes of compassion, but so too, to the persecutors, the scoffers, and the indifferent. This is the gift of death’s horizon. To lift us, above the calamities of life, to raise us beyond our petty interactions, where we discover a newfound clarity, the unity of all things, and a tranquility that transfigures us interiorly despite the outward disfigurement of what ails us.
This past week I had the privilege of witnessing just this kind of transfiguration not theoretically but first-hand in real time – invited, as I was, to Santa Cruz where Dave (a dear friend and member of this community) has been given a dire prognosis and has entered now into hospice care.
As I made the long trek to Santa Cruz, what I expected to see what a dying man. But what I encountered was a man who has never been more alive. Never more present to the giftedness, the brevity, the fragility, and beauty of this life. There was no time in our visit for petty gossip or idle talk about the weather, or bemoaning the global crises we face, or debating the divisiveness of national politics.
Instead, a small group of friends and loved ones gathered around him in a small circle, like the disciples at the foot of the cross, to celebrate the eucharist and to anoint our beloved friend. But most of all to simply gaze upon him with unflinching love, to accompany him on a journey that he must well take in solitude but not in isolation.
Upon arriving I encountered a man who was far from dower or somber or depressive. He was very much alive – possessing the serenity and intensity of a man intent on being fully present to the gamut of what life – and death—had to offer him.
As a handful of us began the liturgy, I half expected we might be like spectators: outsiders looking in at a man whose suffering we could not alleviate nor whose fate we were powerless to alter. But reading Dave’s energy and his spirit, I realized this was no time for pleasantries, no time for euphemisms, or tip-toeing around the obvious. This was a eucharistic celebration of Last Rites.
And thus, in the space of what would have been a sermon, I said as much. “Our society avoids death at all costs,” I said, “introducing every manner of distraction and avoidance.” But this was no time for those convenient forms of denial to invade this, our sacred circle. There was no time to waste for a man who gathered us precisely because he was quite lucid about how little time he had. To avoid the gift of this unvarnished truth would have been a great disservice to a man who asked precisely for accompaniment, solidarity, and the balm of our loving presence.
So, in that moment I invited all who were gathered to speak their hearts – to tell Dave anything and everything they wanted him to know about their love for him, their admiration, their appreciation of who he was as a friend, as spouse – companions in faith.
As the liturgy unfolded, a make-shift card table serving as our only altar; any fear that we would be mere spectators in his process of dying were allayed, as the liturgy itself forged us into participants, David’s anticipated death becoming for us the birth-pangs of the church born yet again, not on the ancient mounds of Golgotha, but nonetheless in the modern suburbs of Santa Cruz. City of the Holy Cross.
And like the birth of the ancient church beneath the foot of that cross, this little embodiment of the modern church gathered around the foot of a hospice bed. Powerless yet again to alter the outcome of David’s fate, yet no less powerful in our unflinchingly fidelity. The power of love which changes nothing, but for Dave, meant everything.
Holding him in the silence of our gaze, blessing him with the holy water of our tears, and the sacred hymns of our laughter. Anointing him with the unvarnished truth of our love, and uniting with him in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup.
After administering Last Rites, I passed the Oil of the Infirmed to all who were gathered, inviting them to anoint him in their own way, in silence or with whatever words would spring intuitively from their hearts. The words that poured forth were as sacred scripture. And while, I am not at liberty to share what others in that little gathering of “church” communicated with Dave that afternoon, I will risk sharing his response to us, as our time together drew to a close.
Sitting in his recliner he spoke through a cracked voice, and tears falling not of sadness but of joy:
I will forever remember this, he said,
as the first step on my journey home.
And perhaps I was just imagining it, perhaps it was no more a ray of slanted light refracted from the window just beside him. But I could swear in that moment, David’s face was wholly transfigured, bright and shining like the sun.
David, even from the heights of the cross you now carry, you are teaching us the meaning of the transfiguration in ways that are as surprising as they are beautiful. May each of us then continue to accompany you with an untiring love and an unflinching gaze.
+ The Three-in-one and one-in-three
Image Credit: James Tissot, What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (c.1890)