“Nowhere” can be a comfortable place. Just ask the designers of malls, shopping centers, and chain stores. To take the example of a chain store — they are designed so that anyone who arrives can easily find their way around. Jeans are always in the same place as are hoodies and shoes. Each place is nearly identical to the others, and they all run together in a sort of geography of nowhere. We are blessed to worship in a place that feels like “somewhere.” It is a place that is unique and filled with beauty. God uses beauty to speak to us and to challenge us to see in a more transcendent way — to see the heart of things. Over the next few months, I will spend some time each week praying with one of the pieces of art that it is easy to walk by or to ignore in this magnificent place and write a bit about what I am seeing here. It will be a spiritual tour of sorts and a way for us to re-engage the beauty that gives so many of us a sense of home here. I hope that you will share with me too what you are freshly seeing as we look with eager longing with the eyes of faith.
The Mary Statue
We don’t know how long Mary stood, weeping at the foot of the Cross, as her beloved Son was taken from her. We don’t know what she was feeling, thinking, praying, or doing. Perhaps she grieved stoically — in quiet desolation. Perhaps she wailed and pulled at her clothes and grabbed the ankle of her Son hanging there — looking and hoping for one last sign of life or one last look of love from those eyes. We don’t know, yet this image of Mary with Jesus at his last has inspired art, like the statue we have here at St. Philip’s or like the famous Pietà, across the centuries. This statue we are blessed to have (flanking the Altar rail along with the Beloved Disciple) makes me think of the many times mothers grieve in our society — of the many ways crosses go up around us. Children are lost to violence and soldiers don’t come home — and so many more stories unfold as mothers stand stoically or weep uncontrollably. The power of the Cross comes home in each and every story of loss — and a look into the eyes of Mary in this statue reminds us that we do not worship a remote sultan or a deity of cloud. We worship a Son, a brother, a friend, and a God who became man — who became us that we might be drawn to be more like him.
[The Mary statue is located at the west corner of the altar rail and was carved of basswood, probably in medieval Burgundy.]
A reading of the diaries of Mother Theresa points toward the need so many of us have for some deeper sense of Christ’s Presence among us. She wrote, to a priest, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
The Tabernacle [an ornate silver chest that houses the consecrated elements] is a visible reminder of God’s unfailing Presence — of the promise that Jesus will be with us always. It offers a space for adoring the Presence of Christ as we seek nothing but the assurance that He is ever with us and offer that which we are ever commanded to offer, to love the Lord Our God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds.
For some, that space may feel like a quiet time with Jesus as a friend. Others may find themselves thrown down in awe at the throne. Others may walk with Jesus on the road. Others may relish the absolute mystery of it all and sense the beauty of holiness laid in Bread and Wine. Some may contemplate the Passion and others may know the Resurrection. Some may yearn for relationship and others may find themselves not yet ready.
It is these and countless other ways of being with Christ that a Tabernacle offers. The chance to dwell with the God of Hope without being told what that moment means. It is a way for the Center to be our center — my hope is that this powerful fixed point in our common life might be brought out for our whole congregation to admire its outward beauty and better know its deeper grace.
[The Tabernacle is currently housed in the Columbarium to the west of the altar. It was commissioned by the Altar Guild in memory of Virginia L. May and other former Altar Guild members and was made by Tucson silversmith Carlos Diaz.]
The Carlota Crucifix
Christians have worn the symbol of the Cross on our chests and emblazoned it on banners for two millennia. Why would a Christian display a cross with pride? Why wear an object of shame and death? We wear it because, ultimately, the cross does not belong on the Christian; the Christian belongs on the cross.
Christians hold to the truth that the cross was intended for us — for all of humanity which turned away from Divine Love. Yet, Christ allowed himself to be placed upon it — the degradation of God was set between our souls and a grim eternity.
This is why we hold it up — and the cross is meaningless if it is no longer a reminder of this fact. If we Christians ever find it to be a symbol of triumphant conquest or vengeful purpose then it — the cross itself — is mocked. Yet, if we can find in the love poured out there a call to know all those who are shamed, rejected, and betrayed as one with us and with the broken Christ, then we see salvation at work.
It is when Christianity has forgotten the shame that we have committed our deepest sins. We forgot what the cross meant and painted it on shields, marched to war, seized empires, and held inquisitions.
This is why I find crucifixes to be far more powerful than empty crosses — an empty cross is so often just that. A crucifix, with the body of Christ on it (like the Carlota Crucifix in the Baptistry), is a reminder that this is not a faith without consequence and that we worship God made flesh and blood.
[The Carlota Crucifix is on the altar in the Baptistry. It is said to be a gift from Pope Pius IX to Carlota, wife of Maximilian, when they departed to attempt to establish an empire in Mexico in 1864.]
The Credence Table Frame
My eyes were drawn on Sunday to the ornate silver scrollwork around the Credence Table that connects the altar area with the Sacristy, where the Altar Guild works hard to help our services come off beautifully. The scrollwork is similar to the metalwork elsewhere in the church but much more elaborate.
It is fitting that it adorns the place where the most precious thing we share, Communion, is prepared. Through that scrollwork-adorned space pass precious metalware chalices that are precious because they contain the Source of our life together. Their beauty is found in their transformation from simple cups to something more — something set aside for holy purpose.
In our lives, perhaps the most precious thing our hands will ever do is become a throne in which Grace will rest at the Communion rail. During our lifetime we will cradle newborns, cool the brows of the dying, hold the hands of long-time partners and first loves — we will use our hands to love and sometimes to hurt. Yet every Sunday, for generation after generation, back to the time at that Last Supper which was the Church’s first, we have held out our hands to do as Christ commanded — to take and eat.
We become precious vessels as we pass through the ornate beauty of this place — yet we are precious not because an economy or a society says so but because we have been counted among those of whom even angels may be jealous, because we are guests at a Feast prepared before the foundations of the world were laid. We come and are blessed — transformed — for a beautiful, holy purpose.
[This repousse silver frame, probably from Peru, was cut from a larger frame to fit this location. It was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Fowler.]
The image of Jesus with Mary his Mother and with Mary Magdalene (or with St. John, depending on source) in the Chapel of the Holy Nativity (our chapel’s formal name) is striking for its intense color. The intimacy of the contact with the wounded Christ is equally striking. His Mother’s thumb is gently laid on the wound — perhaps in the way Thomas might have touched that same pierced side. She may have touched it with disbelief too — unable to believe that this had been done by those whom he so loved.
There are so many wounds we can scarcely believe, whether emotional or physical. We touch gently and even with awe as we ask ourselves how and why. We wonder if we could bear them — and say a prayer that we might not have to. Yet, in each of our lives, the question will not be whether we will be wounded but when. We will lose, suffer, ache, and more and wonder if there is anyone left to comfort us.
Yet in this image we can find hope that those who care for us will be there to look into our eyes, to hold our hand, to sit with us and hold us as we reel from the shock of it all. May we be a community that can comfort, hold, and dare to gently touch the wounds of those who just need one loving reminder that they are not alone — who are desperate to believe again that joy cometh in the morning.
[This Pietà, c. 1525, was painted in tempera on wood by Giovanni di Pietro, known as Lo Spagna (1450–1528). Lo Spagna was a student of Perugino, of the Umbrian school of painting.]
The Baptismal Font
Looking at the font, I am always taken to the dark of the Easter Vigil — to the echoing chant:
“How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away.
It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.
It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined
and man is reconciled to God.”
The mystery of Baptism echoes the essential mystery of creation — all is beloved of God. Earth and Heaven — Humanity and Divinity — are joined in the offering of God in Christ. The Creation is made and called good and yet we stray and are called back at the font.
The mystery of Baptism is that we can be one with perfect Love. It is that mysterious union that prepares us for a life of Communion with Christ.
Baptism is our Sacrament of inclusion, for it is our washing for the feast offered at the Altar.
Baptism is communion with Christ’s death, which welcomes us to Communion with Christ’s living Body, which draws us to the perfect wholeness of Christ’s Resurrection.
Neither Baptism nor Communion are simply means of welcome. If they are this alone to us then they are deadly for then they do not call us to transformed life — to peace and concord with one another in and with Christ as pride and hatred are cast out. The Sacraments are made for us — and we Christians are made through and for the Sacraments. We are made to be creatures of holiness journeying through them into the heart and self, into the Body and Blood, of Christ.
In these Sacraments, matter (water, bread, and wine) is changed, and we are changed too. If we come to them seeking only some private bit of comfort then we remain lost, for Christ is offering transformation into his very self — for earth and heaven are to be joined not only in Christ but in us.
[The Font was made by Cecil Emmons, a parishioner and self-taught metalworker, in the 1940s. The basin and dome are made of hammered Arizona copper.]