Thursday, April 09, 2020

Maundy Thursday: Visions of Communal Meals

There is a reason that the rite central to most religious traditions takes place in the context of a communal meal. Eating and drinking with others at a common table is the mark of deep communal relations, the sharing of one’s life-giving material goods, one’s time, one’s presence. It is deep communal relations that marked the Jesus movement which celebrates the institution of its communion rite on this day the church has called Maundy Thursday (from the Latin mandatum, command). The day takes its name from the commandment Jesus leaves with his disciples: "Love one another as I have loved you."

For about 13 years after my return to Orlando, I found myself unable to attend the Episcopal Church locally. Whatever else this diocese had become, it had little to do with any sense of communality that included everyone. And so a small group of priests and laity began to meet in our home each Thursday night for eucharist set in the context of a meal. Everyone brought themselves and a dish. Since several of us had Franciscan roots, we called ourselves the Francis/Clare Community.

I began to line the walls of our dining room with images of Communal Meals. While the community lived a healthy life-span as small communities do only to finally wither away as members departed and died, the images reflecting our time together remain. On this night the Christian world remembers the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, I offer some of the imaginings of that event captured in the images that stared down over our shoulders into the communal meal and eucharist rite of the Francis-Clare Community for those 13 years.

Watanabe: The Gospel Through the Lens of Japanese Folk Art

This vision of the Last Supper comes from Japan. The artist, Sadao Watanabe, strictly painted images from the Gospels but always through the medium of the folk art (mingei) of Japan. I have always loved this depiction from the minute I saw it. This is a signed print. I managed to put in the winning bid for it on Ebay, something I rarely do.  It has a place of honor in the collection of communal meal images lining the walls of our dining room. And it is the perfect piece to open this discussion of art of the Last Supper.

Dali: A Modern Vision from the Heart of Washington

This vision may be familiar to many. It came from the gift shop of the Smithsonian National Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, D.C. Dali’s Last Supper has long been one of my favorite visions of this communal meal. The original is hung just outside a bank of elevators near two stories of glass windows overlooking the National Sculpture Garden outside. It is always breathtaking to step off the elevator to see this depiction which takes up the entire opposing wall. I make it a destination of my pilgrimage when I am in Washington.

An Irish Blessing: Women and Children Included  

In 1998 a group in Ireland named 'Brothers and Sisters in Christ' who were seeking a larger role in leadership for woman in the Roman Catholic Church commissioned this artwork from Polish artist Bohdan Piasecki. He has lived and worked as an artist in Italy, Canada and France. He currently serves as Secretary of the Polish Academy of Art and now lives with his wife Teresa in his home town of Okuniew, near Warsaw.

Bohdan painted this scene of the women, men and children celebrating the Passover together, as Jesus ate his last supper. Each of the 22 figures are clothed in traditional Palestinian garb, rather than the Italian Renaissance gear seen in one of the world's most recognizable paintings, Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper.

What was striking for me was the presence of women and children along with the men. My guess is that this is probably closer to the actual event than the visions historically provided by a patriarchal institution. You can see why this vision is part of the collection in our dining room.

An Australian Vision: A Communal Meal in the Context of Justice  
For years I admired this vision of a communal meal which I saw in the main room of The Spiral Circle, a metaphysical shop in the heart of Orlando not far from our home. I always bought my incense there (they had the best variety in town) and commented on this painting every time I was there. One day, Bev, the owner, said that she had gotten a lot of questions on that print, took it down and looked on the back of the framing. There was the address of the shop in Australia from which it had come.

But there’s more to this story. 

Between the time I ordered it and its arrival, our home was destroyed by Hurricane Charlie and we were just in the early stages of rebuilding it. The print was returned to the shop in Australia. There the shop owner was kind enough to contact me and ask if I wanted my money back. I explained to her what had happened, she was horrified. I asked if she’d resend it. She did with no additional postage as a gift to us. One of the first things I hung on my new, freshly painted wall in the dining room was this print.

The artist is Susan Dorothea White who based her work on Leonardo da Vinci's 1490s painting The Last Supper. In a challenge to the patriarchal concept of thirteen men on one side of a table, shows 13 women from all regions of the world; the woman in the position of Leonardo's Christ figure is an Australian aboriginal wearing a T-shirt with the Australian Aboriginal Flag. One woman seen is in the position of Judas. She dines on a Coca-Cola and a hamburger, while all the other women are seen with a bread roll and glass of water.

The painting toured Australia in the Blake Prize for Religious Art exhibition in 1988, where it was ridiculed, before being exhibited in the artist's solo exhibition in Amsterdam, where it featured in the Dutch art journal Kunstbeeld: "The work shows clearly Susan White's thinking about human rights. It should be mentioned here that she sometimes places her many faceted talent at the service of the struggle for human rights".

The last communal meal Jesus shared with his disciples was eaten in the fading hopes that a kingdom of G_d marked by justice, right relations and peace, might yet “come on Earth.” Indeed, Jesus had taught them to pray “Your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” But the king of the Roman Empire had other ideas and within 24 hours of eating this last meal, Jesus would be dead, the victim of a brutal public murder by the Roman Empire.

The Francis/Clare Community always had members devoted to justice work from health and legal care with the poor to teaching in minority schools. It was fitting that White’s work would peer over our shoulders as we ate our communal meals together. 

Guadalupe Attends: A Home Blessing from A Conflicted Land

In the summer of 2006, I traveled to Nicaragua for a two week seminar on Education for Global Citizenship organized by the Center for Global Education, a division of Augsburg College in Minneapolis. There were a lot of communal meals where students and professors alike sat down to talk about our days of talking with a people who had withstood several years of war and a thinly veiled and illegal invasion by American trained and armed forces called Contras. 

It was an eye-opening couple of weeks to say the least.

The last day before we left, a few of us called a taxi to take us to the central market in Managua. One could find anything from freshly butchered pigs to tee shirts to tables running over with books. Amidst the noise and the crowds there, I encountered this vision of the Last Supper. It is an odd mixture of European Renaissance imagery along with some local color. I love the fact that the Virgen de Guadalupe (Tepeyac) is present at the Last Supper along with a couple of motmots, the national bird of Nicaragua.

The purpose of this plaque is clear with the words across the top: God Bless This Home. And it has blessed mine for the last 14 years, overlooking the table where our communal meals and eucharistic rites were held.

Peace Amidst Great Suffering: A Campesino Vision

During my time in seminary, I twice traveled to El Salvador. The first time a group of seminarians spent 10 days in the country under the auspices of the World Council of Churches serving as observers of the fragile cease fire in Salvador’s bloody 13 year civil war. Like most of the countries in Central America, Salvador had been the target of an American counter-insurgency program that proved particularly brutal in this country. 

Archbishop Oscar Romero would be shot down at the altar in the middle of the communion rites at the chapel on the grounds of the convent where he lived. Four Maryknoll nuns returning from their literacy and public health work in the country would be raped and executed by paramilitary forces and six Jesuit professors and their two housekeepers would be slaughtered on the campus of the University of Central America.

The second visit to El Salvador occurred the following year, 1993. I joined fellow seminarians as international election observers under the auspices of the United Nations. We stayed out in the country near the town of Chalatenango where the local school would serve as the polling place. I watched illiterate peasants standing hours in the broiling tropical sun to dip their thumbs into ink pots and make their X on ballots with pictures of the candidates running for president. It was truly humbling day.

The last day in San Salvador, I found this depiction of the Last Supper in the market. It reflects the campesino artisan pattern that one sees on wooden crosses, tapestries and ceramics produced in the northeastern corner of the country along the border with Guatemala and Honduras, where American forces and the Contras they directed were stationed.

I have always loved campesino art with its vibrant colors and simplicity. This one reminded me that the communal meal of eucharist is always set in the context of justice making.  As Eucharistic Prayer C of the Book of Common Prayer puts it:

 “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”


Grounding: Families of Birth, Choice

The largest of the images of this communal meal in my dining room is the one with which I have the longest history. This Last Supper, an adaptation of Da Vinci’s masterpiece, graced the wall over my Grandparent’s supper table. I grew up eating under that reproduction on my many visits to see them in Gainesville.

As a kid, I always thought that most of the disciples looked uncomfortable. How could any artist ever have gotten them to pose like that, I wondered. Moreover, Jesus looked like a Swedish rock star and John, the disciple that loved him, looked a lot like my Mother. 

It was always an intriguing image. My Mother inherited it when her Father died. Then when my Mother died, my Dad told me I could have whatever I wanted in the house. I only chose a handful of items. This was the first thing I picked.

In the 13 years our Francis/Clare Community met around our dining room table, which was the table from my family home, this image connected me to my roots in a good family. This image heard an awful lot of political arguments and theological debates during my time as a child in the 1960s at my Grandparents and in the 1970s at my family home. Somehow it fit right into this Francis/Clare Community where social justice work was always rooted in a life of prayer and communal meals.  

This Maundy Thursday, our dining room is empty much like those of most people across the country. That emptiness is sorely noticed in a season of Passover and Easter, times when tables ordinarily bulge with food and guests. We are held captive by a virus in our homes in a nation shaken to its core. And yet, in the midst of this silence and emptiness, there is something comforting about sharing these images of communal meals with you this night.

My collection of Last Supper imagery is a visual reminder of the loving families of birth and choice I have always had the privilege of belonging to. It reminds me that my long life of peace and justice work has always shared the company of beloved sojourners and emerged out of communities that I have cherished. This Maundy Thursday, “the gifts of God for the people of God” has deeply personal meaning for me as I survey the images adorning my dining rooms. And for those many gifts I am profoundly grateful.

[Image: Sister Leda Miller, O.S.B., Holy Names Monastery, St. Leo, FL; Last Supper (1985)]


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020


Sunday, April 05, 2020

Holy Week in a Time of Pandemic: This, Too, Shall Pass

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world. We adore you, O Christ and we bless you. Because by your [+] holy cross you have redeemed the world. AMEN.            

[Traditional Franciscan prayer upon entering or leaving a church]

The readings for Palm Sunday provide some of the most difficult texts any preacher has to work with at any time during the church year. The brutal murder of Jesus and the events that lead up to it are hard to hear, much less think about. Holy Week takes us from the elation of the Palm Sunday procession to the absolute despair of Jesus’ last breath. Our readings this morning offer little of comfort to us. And we are particularly aware of such despair in times like our own.

In years past it may have been difficult for some of us to fully enter into the events of Holy Week. They seemed so distant from our daily lives. The idea of crucifixion alone was so foreign to most of our experiences that while we may have felt sympathy for Jesus and his followers, we really couldn’t relate to their experience.

This year, all of that has changed. Last December, a tiny virus which has proven highly contagious and quite deadly began to sweep our planet. As a result, the house of cards that we call modern civilization began to fall apart. Health care systems have been overwhelmed, our economy has tanked, and we find ourselves confined to our homes for the duration, however long that might be. Several weeks into this contagion, I think we are all beginning to understand what crucifixion really means.

This year there are many points in the story line of Holy Week to which we can relate. We know that elation of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, driven by hope of a messiah who would save his countrymen and women from their worst fears. We have watched a stream of would-be messiahs come across our televisions and monitors the past few weeks from the fields of medicine, politics and religion. 

All of them offered us hope, if only fleeting, that we might yet avoid a seemingly inevitable date with the cross, that things might return to normal and we could go on with our daily lives, the virus a mere blip on the radar of history.

Each time, in our heart of hearts, we have felt a glimmer of hope – Hurray! We are saved! And yet, like the people of Jesus’ Judea, we have not been delivered from our distress. Our trajectory toward crucifixion remains on course. And so we know the sting of disappointment that gives rise to the rage Jesus experienced all around him as the mob cried out, “Crucify him!”

We know the feeling of betrayal by holders of power. Perhaps we have a better sense of the realization that Jesus must have had as he stood before Pilate, knowing that Pilate knew Jesus had done nothing to merit punishment, much less death. And yet he also knew that Pilate was more concerned with his own political future than doing the right thing. And so Pilate decided to play to the basest elements of those he governed and sacrifice an innocent man. And he exacerbated that wrongdoing by dissembling about it: “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” 

We live in a time when many of us fear we cannot rely on those who hold power in our land to do the right thing or to be honest about that. We live in a time when concerns for political careers and economic profitability supersede responsibilities to people. 

We see it in the scapegoating of other nations for causing this virus resulting in ethnic minorities who are our fellow citizens becoming targets for xenophobic abuse. We see it in the playing of states against one another to obtain desperately needed medical supplies. And we see it in when power holders, confronted with the harm their decisions have caused, respond like Pilate: “I’m not responsible for that.”

We also know the feeling of betrayal by those people immediately around us. Jesus was betrayed first by a disciple who collaborated with the Temple cult to hand him over to the Romans and later by virtually all of his disciples who would abandon Jesus once trouble began. It has always fascinated me that for all the bravado we hear among Jesus’ male disciples, it is almost exclusively the women disciples who were present at his procession to Golgotha, who stood at the foot of the cross as he died and who returned as quickly as the law allowed to attend to his battered body. The rest of the disciples are all scattered, hiding, protecting their own hides. 

Many of us who went to the stores over the last couple of weeks looking for basic necessities from toilet paper to eggs, milk and bread experienced firsthand the feeling of betrayal by our fellow citizens. Feelings of fear in time of crisis are somewhat predictable.
But egocentric, irrational panic buying and hoarding of necessities potentially endangers all of us. Worse yet, price gauging among those who would provide goods that could mean the difference between life and death for many engenders fear and loathing precisely at a point when we most need to be able to trust one another and work together if we are to survive. 

At the end of Holy Week on Holy Saturday, the shattered body of Jesus will lie in a tomb, alone. His followers will be in hiding, fearful of discovery by the Roman authorities. No doubt they, like us who hide from a killer virus in our homes, had little idea of how to relate to a world that had changed so dramatically that they felt it was literally coming to an end.  And no doubt they, like us found themselves wondering “What is going to happen to us?”

Truth be told, there can never be much good news in weeks that end in crucifixion. The words of our Evening Prayer rite spring to mind as we experience the darkness of the tomb: O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.

But I would like to offer three bits of good news before we embark on this journey of Holy Week in a time of pandemic.

First, we need to remember that however painful our current suffering may be, it is not forever. When I was a na├»ve younger man out trying to slay dragons and save the world, I encountered an awful lot of disappointments. When I found myself most distressed by the events of my own life and the world around me, my Dad would say to me: “This, too, shall pass, Son.” I find myself repeating that mantra these past weeks of watching the world familiar to me falling apart. I believe these words contain a wisdom that is trustworthy: This, too, shall indeed pass. And history tells us that is true.   

Second, I find myself comforted by the recognition that even in the most agonizing final moments of Jesus’ life, the G_d he called Abba, Daddy, was still with him, even when it seemed that was not the case. The writers of Matthew’s Gospel place the words of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think all of us can relate to this feeling of abandonment as our world crumbles around us. Even so, G-d remained present with Jesus. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, G-d will highly exalt this Jesus who willingly endured the process of crucifixion to the bitter end. Jesus will not be abandoned to the pit. And neither shall we.

There are many ways in which G-d’s presence in our lives can become known during this time of crucifixion. This ministry of making our liturgical services available online to those who must remain in their homes is one of them. Our own willingness to remain in our homes to prevent the spread of this virus is another.

Some of us see the presence of the divine more clearly than ever in the faces of our grandchildren on FaceTime whom we cannot visit in person. We see it in the heroism of the grocery store clerks and the folks who pick up our trash and deliver our mail, in our law enforcement agents, the nurses, and doctors. We see it in the social worker reaching out to the homeless to warn them of the danger and teachers caravanning past their students’ homes to remind them they are not forgotten. We see it in the neighbors who stand on their porches and balconies to sing and play musical instruments for us to join in on. We see it down the street when another neighbor leaves a casserole on the stoop of an EMT who's been working long overtime shifts because so many of her colleagues have been quarantined for exposure.*

We, too, become agents of the divine presence when we express our appreciation for workers in essential businesses which remain open and our admiration for the public servants who are risking their own lives in protecting us. If G-d’s saving presence is to be known in a world undergoing crucifixion by a simple but powerful virus, it will be because the people of G_d – and that would be all of us - have chosen to make that presence known.

Here’s the third bit of good news. Please note, this is a spoiler alert:  At the end of this ironically named Holy Week with the setting of the sun on Holy Saturday, the day in which we commemorate Jesus’ lying in his tomb, the church will begin a new liturgical season. Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, celebrates the reality that death does not have the last word with Jesus. And the good news is that the crucifixion we are currently enduring will not have the last word with us, either.  At the end of crucifixion lies resurrection.

To those of you who are watching this day, whether parishioners here at St. Richards or those who have come to our Facebook site on your own, know that you are loved and remembered by this parish this day. Do not lose sight of the reality that this time of crucifixion, too, shall pass. And have courage, knowing that G-d is with us always, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Blessings to all of us this Holy Week as together we make our journey down the Via Dolorosa, this final passage of the Way of the Cross.

Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, [+] one God, for ever and everAmen.   [Collect appointed for Palm Sunday]                  

[A sermon offered on Palm Sunday, 2020 at St. Richard’s Parish, Winter Park, Fl]

* with gratitude to the Franciscan Action Network for the examples used in this section

A video recording of the live delivery of this sermon is available at the St. Richard’s Facebook site beginning at 23:30 into the recording:


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020