The Rev. Dr. Canon William J. Danaher, Jr.
October 25, 2015
There are certain moments in which I find myself when I read a section of the scriptures or I go through the readings for a Sunday that immediately in my mind I get an image that I cannot put away. I find myself so transfixed by that image that I almost feel that I have to stop and look at that image and unpack it my mind, and then think about why the scriptures are making me do that. Why are the scriptures so pointing me in this direction? Usually, by the time I get to a sermon I’ll work it all the way around so that I can talk a little bit about what I think God is doing in the scriptures and then I work my way back to the sermon because then you can maybe digest a little easier than me just playing kind an art historian from the start.
But today, I have to begin with a picture because I can’t get anyway there otherwise. I want you to take a look at this incredible altarpiece that was painted by Giovanni Bellini. People debate when it was done. Some say it was as early as 1443 and some have argued it’s the first oil painting he did, and others say it’s his more mature work and put it somewhere around the 20-year period around 1487.
This altarpiece sits in a church of San Giobbe which is in Venice and it’s where a fraternity, the confraternity of St. Job had a chapel and a hospice center for the people of Venice who were suffering from the plague, or from leprosy, or from any kind of ailment. If they were on their way to their death they were brought to this hospice center. This confraternity, this society of religious people who had covenanted together would care for them while they died. This altarpiece is in the chapel that’s there, or was originally. It’s now in a gallery but it’s worth seeing. The church is still standing. It has this incredible display of saints around the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.
What I see in this, what I want you to see is there’s this whole theme in the painting that emerges in the Renaissance called “sacra conversazione,” holy conversations. What that means is that when we are engaging with God in prayer and contemplation we actually leave the historic place we’re in and we draw closer to the time and place that God is or where we find our minds going when we contemplate the narrative of Jesus. These sacred conversations would elevate the soul. But it would take the soul not to a place outside of time per se, it would take us to the fullness of time, the moment of divine appointment, the place where our lives intersect with Christ’s life, and where our time intersects with Christ’s time. There’s a sense in which we can be closer to God in those moments than we are closer to tomorrow or yesterday.
Now, this all has its source in the deepest resources of the Christian tradition. When you and I do this Eucharist together, when we give thanks and recreate the history of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, we live into a holy conversation, a sacra conversazione. We believe that we are present with Jesus in a way that is more intimate than we are present to tomorrow, or to yesterday in terms of historical time. That’s the wonder of the Eucharist; we’re not only present with Jesus at the beginning when he is about to give His life for others, and for us, and for the world but we also are present with the wedding feast of the Lamb that stands ahead of us. This is what I mean by the fullness of time, not eternity, not some place outside of time but the fullness of time.
We are already celebrating our glorification before God when we take part in the Eucharist. All of this arises in the Renaissance for reasons that are complicated and that I won’t go into but it becomes a major theme of the spirituality of the time, and of the art of the time. You have these characters here in front, and I’m just going to run down them. And I’m going to read it like a book. On the left you have St. Francis. Right behind St. Francis, looking directly at the Christ Child, is John the Baptist. And San Giobbe, or Job who we read about in today’s first reading, is right there looking very much like a slightly older Christ figure. You could almost see how he resembles the figure of Christ on the cross, or maybe even a risen Christ.
Then we have three little cherubs playing instruments some of which look like Brian Leduc maybe or Beth Lackey but there they are, they’re just keeping the music. Then on the right you have, holding the book you have Saint Dominic who as you know, or maybe you don’t know, he was the founder of the Dominicans, the preachers, the people who took on poverty so that they could preach the word but they also were incredible intellects and academics.
You have Saint Sebastian who was pierced with arrows when he began to testify to the truth of the gospel. He’s the patron saint of athletes, believe it or not, because he endured this incredible trial and in fact, according to the early legends of the church, the arrows that pierced him didn’t kill him. He actually recovered from that moment of persecution. When they discovered him again, he went and he confronted the Emperor Diocletian and then he was finally clubbed to death. Not very cheery but that’s what you have.
Then finally, on the right you have Saint Louis of Tours, and he is a person who had been from an aristocratic family who had been captured in France, somehow got his way free again and somehow in the midst of his captivity was consecrated Archbishop. And when he came back, and when he was liberated, he resigned his office as an aristocrat. He resigned, he gave away all his wealth so that he could be a leader in the church.
All of these people are standing outside of their historical time. John the Baptist and Job come way before Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. Saint Sebastian is earlier than them. But they all are here surrounding, in this altar, they’re looking at the Christ Child, they’re looking at the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.
They are creating, they have this moment of presence because when we think about holy conversations we’re not talking about the exchange of information. We’re talking about experiencing the presence of God and entering the presence of God. Conversation, conversazione, that is actually the deepest roots of it is “conversion.” So they are being changed by God’s presence in their life. When the worshiper walks into this space where people are suffering and dying, they experience this portrait in which they sit before God and they’re reminded of all the different kinds of suffering that there is in the world connected not only with the church but with life itself.
All of these saints suffered, and by that I mean suffering at its core. This will be the first thing that I want you to know about suffering; suffering at its core means to be beholden to the power of another. To be at the mercy of another force or another person, and so what’s happening in this moment is you have all of these people who have taken on suffering. They have allowed themselves to become weak. They’ve allowed themselves to become at the mercy of others. Saint Francis left his own aristocratic upbringing, his own position so that he could be with the poorest of the poor. Saint John the Baptist was in the wilderness dressed in the camel hair eating locusts and honey, and experiencing deprivation so that he could bear witness to God, and so on and so forth.
But the person who is suffering here, who has the most—the focal point is Saint Job. If you think for a moment what that means to call a figure from the Old Testament, “Saint Job.” To give him membership in the panoply of saints, the company of the people who know Jesus in some way, is quite remarkable. Job is sitting there because Job has suffered. His suffering has been innocent. He has been innocent of the suffering he would deserve. It also was not voluntary.
It wasn’t the kind of act of taking on suffering for another, a little bit like the way you become a parent and live through long nights in which you learn why sleep deprivation is a form of torture when you have a child. That’s a voluntary suffering; you know—you didn’t really know what you were getting into—but you kind of knew generally what you were about. When you have a child you know that. Job suffers innocently.
This altarpiece places Job with his innocent suffering closest to the Christ Child. That’s because I think that when any of us suffer innocently, when any of us have not merited what we think God has done in our lives, whether it be through sickness, or through abuse, or some kind of disease, meaning by that disease, suffering is devastating. Suffering is isolating.
For years, I as an academic and a priest, I would have to field questions about how does God let good people suffer. Over the years, I have explored elaborate theological and philosophical theories. I’ve noticed over time that the people who truly suffer are never going to be satisfied by any kind of philosophical or theological argument that would exonerate God. What they want to know is how God is present.
Because I think that what really causes suffering isn’t the experience of deprivation or pain, it’s that experience of isolation and abandonment that you feel. The image that I’ve always lived with is that suffering is like those moments in which the spacecraft goes around the dark side of the moon and you lose radio contact, and you don’t know if the astronaut is still alive. The astronaut doesn’t know if the world is going to be back once he circumnavigates that moon.
Or suffering is a little bit like that moment of re-entry when the spacecraft is coming back and going through the atmosphere, and is encased in fire, and there can be no communication with the person inside. The person inside is helpless, and can only hope that the purifying fire, as it were, does not burn up the craft. There’s radio silence then too; we don’t know. We can’t communicate. We can’t bridge the distance. We can’t close the gap. We can’t have a conversation. The person, for all intents and purposes, is no longer present to us.
What Job realizes at the end of the Book of Job is that though he continues to badger and demand God to be present. There’s a moment in which God’s presence is finally there not in the form of an explanation for his suffering but merely by being present with Job by accepting his prayer and telling him that he is not alone.
Now, the irony of suffering is that none of us gets out of here alive without experiencing it. All of us are going to experience suffering in one form or another whether it’s going to be disease, or divorce, or our own death in which we finally become weak and we cannot fight it any longer. We will all suffer. That suffering we share with all of humanity. The irony is that when we go through it we feel completely alone.
Not Job, God is present. The rewards that Job gets at the end of the Book of Job is he receives of course this incredible recompense in terms of monetary return and his children, he has new children, and his friends come and they bring money. They just put rings on his fingers and I have this image of this old withered man suddenly just covered with all this bling; necklaces upon necklaces—and a wife who finally likes him again.
But I’m not sure if that’s really the payoff in Job. Of course, just before that part you have this moment where God instructs the friends of Job who’ve not been compassionate in the least to him, who’ve said, “Maybe you did something, Job. Because I haven’t seen this much devastation without there being a cause.” God instructs those friends to offer sacrifices and to pray, to ask Job to pray for them. That’s its own kind of vindication. But if I were to pick the moment in which Job experiences his healing, it’s when he and God finally enter into that sacra conversazione, that presence of God in his life. Job knows that he is not alone.
In today’s gospel from Mark, it’s the last healing moment in Mark when the last miracle that Jesus performs before he goes to his death. He meets Bartimaeus, and Bartimaeus says, “Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me.” The disciples, like the friends of Job tried to keep Bartimaeus from seeing Jesus. But Jesus stands still and calls for him, and though blind, Bartimaeus leaps! He throws off his cloak and finds his Lord. They have a conversation.
That’s because everybody in this altar party has suffered but so have the figures in the center of the altar. Mary has suffered in bearing a child who would be Son of God. This baby represents God’s own willingness to suffer on behalf of us. Job, Bartimaeus, everyone who names their suffering comes close to God. Enters into God’s presence. The distance is closed because God has suffered too in ways we cannot fully understand. In ways that only the heart knows. In ways that we will never be able to comprehend somehow there is holy conversation, a healing presence. What kind of conversation have you had with God lately?