Fra Angelico’s Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella – Part 4 of the “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition

Today’s post is Part 4 in my series that began on May 16, 2018 concerning the recently concluded exhibition of extraordinary egg tempera paintings by the Dominican friar Beato Fra Angelico. The exhibition was held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts during the Spring of 2018 and was entitled Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth.

Nathaniel Silver, Associate Curator of the Collection for this exhibition, includes in his book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, articles by eleven scholars. Each paper is a quality contribution to scholarship. There is one article authored by Chiara Pidatella, entitled “The Provenance of the Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella.” It clarifies and answers the confusion surrounding the provenance of the four reliquaries. Ms. Pidatella has written an important paper in that it compiles the documentary evidence that proves that the four sacred images within the reliquaries in the sacristy of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, were painted by Fra Angelico. These reliquaries and other Angelico masterpieces were on display in the Gardner Museum.

A reliquary is an ornate elaborately constructed box, frame, etc. that is made of wood or precious metals and contains the remains of an individual or multiple saints. These remains may be small or large particles of bone, hair, etc of the deceased saint.  Depending on the design of the frame the openings for the relics are contained in the top or bottom, and in the center if it is a box with lid. You can see the potential opening for the relics at the top of the frame in The Dormition and Assumption of Mary.  It would be within the top circle that is vertically sliced in the center, the relics would be put in that small opening behind “the doors.” It should be noted that Colnaghi & Co. built a new frame for that painting in 1899. I presume they were loyal to the original design of a gabled early Renaissance reliquary, and that the vertical slice is actually an opening for the relic(s).

The reliquaries in the exhibition are embellished with four extraordinary paintings of events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ms Pidatella says that “The fact that the saints whose relics they [the reliquaries] contained are not explicitly named suggests that the relics were of minor importance, especially in comparison to others mentioned in the same documents and described with great precision (particularly those decorated with gemstones and precious metals). The third inventory also confirms that all four reliquaries stayed together in the sacristy until at least 1772″ [Pidatella, p. 25]. 

The history of the movements of the four reliquaries is interesting. I won’t go into the historic details yet one incident deserves mentioning  (I recommend that you purchase the book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, 2018, Gardner Museum, and Paul Holberton, London). The incident concerns the events of the early 19th century when the French government was required (under orders from Napoleon) to make an inventory of Italian artworks. The result being the French government took a very hard stand in relation to Italian art. Ms. Pidatella mentions their belief “that only France deserved to exhibit works from the most important moments in the history of art” (emphasis mine) [Pidatella, p. 27].   Pretty cheeky.

While three of the reliquaries remained in Florence, the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary (one of four seen below) made its way into a collection of an English family headed by Rev. John Sanford (1777 – 1855; he was the chaplain to the Duke of Cambridge, brother of the British King George IV). This acquisition occurred  in the early 19th century; however economic difficulties led to Sanford’s daughter, Anna Horatia Caroline Methuen, to put this Angelico painting on the market. When this occurred Bernard Berenson recommended Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston to purchase the piece, which she ultimately did in 1899, for £4000 [Howard, p. 18, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth]. The Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting then became the first Fra Angelico to be displayed in the United States. Its current frame (that you will see below) was commissioned by Colnaghi & Co.(art dealers) in 1899. Their focus was to frame it in its original gable design {Howard, p. 18-19, ibid].

It is my privilege to present to you my quickly snapped photos of these masterpieces of the four reliquaries (through the courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) . I will also provide my photograph of the back of one of the reliquaries to show you the wooden panel on which the egg tempera paint was applied. You will see that the panel was covered with a decorated piece of paper-like parchment. The reliquaries are approximately 24 inches tall by 15 inches wide.

The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (painted 1426-27) egg tempera and gold on wood panel. This frame is not slightly tipped to the right in reality. It was my attempt to snap a photo before someone stepped in front of me; I didn’t realize the photo was tipped at the time!

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The above two are closeups of the Annunciation and Adoration. Slight tipping resulting from a quick snap occurred here, too. The green squares to the left of Mary’s head are not part of the painting. I did not use a flash. I don’t know what they are, possibly security lights. Notice the extraordinary grill work in back of the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, and the Magi.

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The Dormition and Assumption of Mary (1433-34, egg tempera and gold on wood panel). Purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899, making it the first Fra Angelico painting in America. The painting shows in the lower section the Dormition (falling asleep, death, and above it the resurrection of Mary, the Mother of God ( that is, Mother of Jesus’ human nature) and her simultaneous Assumption into Heaven. The angel, dressed in a blue garment to the left of the frame, is one of a number of larger than life size posters that graced the black walls surrounding the exhibit. These poster angels were copied from Fra Angelico’s paintings. They provided a dramatic effect to the entire exhibit.

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The above is a closeup of Mary which has also been expanded into a larger than life size poster image found in the above Assumption painting. This image was the first you saw as you rounded the second floor stairs into the exhibit at the Gardner Museum. It was taken from the above reliquary on the Dormition and Assumption of Mary and introduced visitors to the beauty of the exhibit.

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The Coronation of the Virgin (1429). The lower image within this reliquary is contained in a small rectangular panel called a predella. It shows the Adoration of the Christ Child by Mary, St. Joseph, and six angels. It also is completed in egg tempera, gold, on a wooden panel. You see more poster angels taken from the Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting in pink and blue garments to the right of this reliquary on the black walls of the exhibit.

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This is a closeup of the Coronation of the Virgin found within the above reliquary. Below are gathered a group of saints. The saint looking over his shoulder at the viewer near the extraordinary translucent stairs is Saint Peter holding the keys of Heaven. St. John the Baptist is on his left. Dominican saints, St. Peter Martyr and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas are also present, St. Francis of Assisi showing the stigmata in his hands, two deacons (St. Stephen, the first martyr (protomartyr), and possibly the deacon St. Benjamin, and some Old Testament prophets. St. Thomas Aquinas (above within the  bigger photo) is looking at the viewer. He is situated next to a pope (the Benedictine Gregory the Great?), possibly placed in that position because both Aquinas and the pope were not martyrs.

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The Madonna della Stella (The Madonna of the Star, 1433/34). Within the predella are the major saints of the Dominican Order (Order of Preachers). Saint Dominic (middle) flanked on the right by St. Thomas Aquinas and on the left by Saint Peter Martyr. The small circular photo of the Church of Santa Maria Novella on the back wall of the exhibit accidentally was included in my quick snap of this picture.  It is interesting that it appeared, I did not plan it. It is the church that the four reliquary paintings were originally housed before they were split up during the last two and one-half centuries.  Presently the Gardner Museum has the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary staying in its collection and the other three will be returned to the Museo San Marco in Florence, Italy.

 

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Closeup of the Madonna della Stella, showing the symbolic colors of the garments worn by the figures. The color blue represents divine attributes, which in the Blessed Mother’s case, represents the belief that she was always immaculate – without sin – and that the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” her resulting in the Incarnation taking place within her physical body. The presence of her immaculate nature was within Mary from the moment of her conception. The Latin Rite, the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, the Coptic Church, and the Orthodox Rites believe that Mary is not God, or a goddess. All of these Rites and Churches do not worship Mary; she is venerated by them. Worship and veneration are two very different concepts; they should never be equated.

The color red of Mary’s inner cloak (as well as Jesus’ outer cloak) represents their human nature. The orange trim of her cloak represents the specific spiritual illumination, and self knowledge, of her status as the Mother of Jesus’ human nature, not His divine nature.

With the two lower angels you notice that the blue/red colors are reversed. The inner cloak is blue representing their spiritual illumination and unique qualities/functions, yet, their outer cloak is red. This is done because Fra Angelico represents them all with human features, but, in the case of the two lower angels he represented their outer cloaks as red. I can place no other interpretation on it other than to say that because Jesus and Mary were resurrected from the dead, and have new physical bodies (with unique and specific qualities) the angels dressed in red outer cloaks may be serving Mary’s physical needs (whatever they may be) in Heaven. Heaven is viewed as both a physical (while different from ours) and a spiritual dimension.

As you know, angels are spiritual beings living within the divine atmosphere of Heaven. According to the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) and other Rites, there are nine “choirs” of angels; each choir possesses specific attributes and functions. Fra Angelico may be distinguishing one “choir” from another through the different colors of the angels’ garments. Angels are pure spiritual beings; they do not have human features or bodies. They are represented that way in Latin and Greek Rite paintings, and some of them in the Holy Scriptures, in order to give the observer/reader a way to relate and understand their functions.

The Dominican Order was keen on expressing the theology of illumination as expressed in the Blessed Mother, their founder – St. Dominic (who illuminated Europe with his sermons against heretics) – and the illumination of the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic faith provided through the writings of 13th century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.

For Mary, Fra Angelico expressed that illumination through the orange pigment of Mary’s inner garment and the extraordinary gilding of the rays of light emanating from Mary and Jesus’ bodies. Notice that Fra Angelico shows the love between the two by having the child Jesus place His head close to His Blessed Mother as if He is about to give her a kiss with the Madonna lovingly holds Him.

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Closeup of the Madonna della Stella; also showing a lovely lavender angel on her left.

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The back of one of the reliquaries showing the structure of the wooden panel, and its decorated paper covering. On the front Fra Angelico applied a base coat of gesso, and then his egg tempera paints and gilding.

I hope you enjoyed viewing my four part series on this extraordinary work by Beato Fra Angelico – Fra (Friar) Giovanni di Fiesole. My deep gratitude to Peggy Fogelman  (Director), Nathaniel Silver (Associate Curator) and the very talented staff  of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for bringing these masterpieces to America. For my wife and I it was a once in a lifetime experience. Congratulations to them and my sincere thanks, too.

I will be featuring some of the remaining single paintings within this exhibition at appropriate times during 2018-19. Some of the remaining Fra Angelico images from this exhibit are the marriage of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother, the Deposition (taking down) of Jesus from the Cross, another painting of the Dormition of Mary, and events in the life of of Saints Cosmas and Damian.

June 12, 2018

© Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018 – text and photos. Photos were taken through the courtesy and generosity of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. I took the photos with an iPhone 6, no flash.

 

Fra Angelico – “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition – Part 2 – Ascension, Pentecost, the Last Judgement

I hope you had a blessed Feast of Pentecost!

Please read Part 1 of “Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth” (posted here on May 16, 2018) in order to receive a proper introduction to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s extraordinary exhibition that, unfortunately, closed this weekend..

As you moved into the gallery that exhibited this once in a lifetime collection of Fra Angelico paintings you first saw the beautiful painting entitled The Ascension of Christ, The Last Judgement, and Pentecost (the Corsini Triptych). It is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on a wood panel. Fra Angelico painted it during the years 1447-1448, seven years before his death in 1455. It was loaned to the Gardner Museum from the Galleria Nazionali d’Arte Antica di Roma – Galerie Barberini Corsini, Palazzo Corsini.

My photographic images of that painting are found below:

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The following quotation is taken from the Exhibition’s commentary found on the right side of the painting. Mesmerizing in its detail, Fra Angelico’s painting pictures three biblical events. At left, Christ ascends into heaven over the heads of the Virgin Mary and the  Apostles. At right, a masterfully foreshortened dove – the Holy Spirit – descends to earth. The story culminates in the center. Christ passes judgment over the living and the dead, saving the worthy (left) and condemning the wicked (right). While the damned cower from fearsome devils who attack the poor souls with claws, angels embrace the blessed.

“This small devotional triptych – a painting with three parts – served a cultivated individual, probably a cleric (deacon, priest, or bishop) in Rome.” Please compare its three episodes to others in my upcoming posts. In the above painting Fra Angelico adopts a vertical presentation. This energizes the connection and communication between heaven and earth. The Gardner Museum’s curator remarked that this technique “enlarges the central scene, and emphasizes” the Catholic Church’s spiritual power.

Fra Angelico, as a Dominican priest, desired to present that Jesus’ act of Redemption (passion, death, and resurrection), and His Ascension back to the Father, made possible the moment of Pentecost. Christ’s actions enabled the eventual opportunity for our free will to choose to accept His Truth and be fed by the Spirit’s power. It is the Father and the Son’s will to have the Holy Spirit nourish us through His grace. This grace is available to us through the proper administration and worthy reception of the Holy Sacraments. Thus, we come to the central panel –  the Last Judgement. Did we freely accept His Sacramental grace or did we ignore, and thereby, reject it? At that moment will we be on the right or the left of Christ?

Allow me to make some personal points on the three close-up photos below. In the first panel of this painting, notice the gold work around the body of Christ. I was allowed to closely examine it. I have never seen a painting’s gold work done with such precision and delicacy. It is not just gold leaf that is applied in a flat manner to the panel. It appears to be actual raised strands, or threads of gold, all applied with great precision. As you slowly move left or right around that part of the painting you notice the light catching the gold and literally radiating and shimmering around the image of Christ. IMG_1745

The Ascension, with Pentecost below.

Second, the image of Pentecost, with the Blessed Mother in the center of the Apostles as the dove hovers and the fire of the Holy Spirit descends upon them and gives them the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:23; 1st Corinthians 12: 4 ff; Galatians 5: 22 ff).

Notice St. Peter, filled with conviction, speaking to the assembly of men below (“Peter’s Discourse” found in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2, verses 14 ff.). Also, notice the clothing on one of the men who gather outside of the upper room listening to Peter: the detail of the lace work on the bottom of one of his garments, and the shadows on the man’s red leotard/shoe. If you stand away from the painting at approximately eight to ten feet to take it all in (as you see in the panoramic top photo) you don’t notice all the detail; but the blessed Fra with his extraordinary perception, noticed the need for it, and he painted it in. A master of detail, and as a true maestro, he knew how to successfully accomplish it. Wonderful!     The last two close-up pictures are below.

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My photos (through the kindness of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), and            my text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018. Photos taken with an iPhone 6, no flash.

 

St. Joseph the Worker and Sacred Artists

Today, May 1, is the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. I chose him to be the patron of St. Joseph’s Art Workshop (found within this site’s Menu Tab at the top of the page) because he is, of all the saints, the most important next to Our Blessed Mother. He was a righteous man (in the finest sense of that spiritual word), a devout and very prayerful Jew, a carpenter, the beloved spouse of our Blessed Mother, and the foster father of Jesus Christ. Today we honor him as a worker. A worker in the professional sense and a worker in God’s vineyard.

Saint Joseph provides us with a model for some of the attributes that all Catholic artists should cultivate: the proper use of time, patience in learning the techniques and meaning of our work, and the daily work itself – making a prayerful commitment to find some time during the day to learn something new about sacred art and practicing the skills necessary for its proper construction.

You will find below a few of the phrases, prayers, and Scripture readings from today’s Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours) for the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker.

Come let us worship Christ the Lord who was honored to be known as the son of a carpenter.

God made him the master of His household, alleluia, alleluia. He gave him charge over all His possessions. 

Saint Joseph faithfully practiced the carpenter’s trade. He is a shining example for all workers, alleluia. 

A reading from the letter of Paul to the Colossians (3: 23-24):  Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being. Do it for the Lord rather than for men, since you know full well you will receive an inheritance from Him as your reward. Be slaves of Christ the Lord.     

The just man shall blossom like the lily, alleluia, alleluia.

All-holy Father, you revealed to Saint Joseph Your eternal plan of salvation in Christ, deepen our understanding of Your Son, true God and true man.

God of all righteousness, You want us all to be like You, may Saint Joseph inspire us to walk always in Your way of holiness. 

God our Father, creator and ruler of the universe, in every age you call man to develop and use his gifts for the good of others. With Saint Joseph as our example and guide, help us to do the work You have asked and come to the rewards You have promised. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Saint Joseph, please pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Stained glass image of St. Joseph with the Child Jesus

May 1, 2018

© Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018

Jesus Our Savior – An Image that is a Work in Progress

I have the happy service of presenting a new workshop to interested adults from Massachusetts and Rhode Island beginning on Saturday February 14th, 2015.

In an attempt to give everyone individual attention the class is currently filled at a limit of ten people. We will be pursuing our studies of painting sacred images in the Latin iconographic tradition. I hope to make the artists aware of the importance of studying the Latin and Byzantine origins of sacred images and its inevitable blossoming within the Greek and Russian civilizations.

The workshop will run over a five-week period, for a total of twenty hours of class time. While they will not be painting the sacred image that is found below of Jesus Our Savior, the technique that I used to paint this image will be taught to the artists. Note that the image is painted using acrylic paints; however, I have developed a different approach in manipulating the layers of the paints. This approach evolved out of studying the work of the 12th century Benedictine monk, Theophilus the Presbyter (whom I have written about in previous essays on this blog), and my own experiments over the past few years of working with egg tempera and acrylic paints.

I specialize in painting personal prayer images (9 by 12 inches, or 12 by 16 inches) rather than images that would be found in large church or chapel applications. The image found below (95% finished) is typical of my approach. It is an image that the person in prayer can relate to, yet, it also carries a sense of transcendence. This approach will be taught in the upcoming workshop. I attempt to teach simplicity in both technique and spirituality. I  avoid flourishes and excessive naturalism in facial or garment representation. In this way I have ignored the typical approach of many Latin Rite sacred artists from the mid 14th century onward. I am attempting to rediscover, or reestablish, the Latin Rite techniques of painting sacred icons. This endeavor is a work in progress!

In the upcoming workshop the students will be studying my technique and actually paint an image of St. Michael the Archangel. Upon completion of that sacred image, they will eventually move on to painting an image of the Holy Theotokos, the Blessed Mother, and then complete the sequence in studying and painting a sacred image of Jesus Christ. In upcoming posts I will be blogging about their experience and the steps that they will take in completing the sacred image of St. Michael.

My approach to the painting of sacred images in the iconographic tradition owes a debt of gratitude to my many teachers in the Byzantine and secular artistic traditions. I also owe a profound thank you to the Holy Spirit, whose grace has enabled my hands to paint sacred images. I pray that my sacred art has not offended Him. The image below appears slightly brighter than it actually is as a result of the flash.

Jesus Our Savior by Deacon Paul O. Iacono, Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts, Copyright © 2011- 2015 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

 

Copyright © 2011- 2015 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Gospel of John 1:35-42 – An Invitation to Follow Jesus

In our Gospel today we hear John the Baptist proclaim “Behold the Lamb of God.”

We see in our mind’s eye, Andrew and another disciple, probably St. John, listening to the Baptist say those words.

Immediately after Jesus walks by they look at one another and, without saying a word, begin to follow Jesus.

Jesus, sensing their presence, turns and seeing them says,

“What are you looking for?”

They say: “Rabbi where do you live?”

They didn’t presume to say, “Rabbi we want to be your companions – we want to learn from you.” Rather they instinctually knew that this man, whom John the Baptist had proclaimed “The Lamb of God,” was the Lamb of God – the promised Messiah; and they wanted to be with Him.

In what must have been an astonishing moment for them, Jesus in turn says, “Come, and you will see.”

What did they see in those three years they spent with Him? That is what John believed he had to write down.

Those three years, and then the following years of John’s own ministry, had to be written down.

Two thousand years later we experience his excitement in the short clips of his memory as we read the significant facts and unique moments of what he experienced.

For in those facts and moments are contained the unique vision of John’s Gospel and Epistles.

They proclaim his experience of the truth that the Word of God – the Mind of God – was incarnated into the man Jesus, the Son of God.

This was done so that the Father could fully express the meaning of His love and His desire to share that love with His creation.

“Rabbi, where do you live?”

“Come and you will see.”

But this is the 21st century; and many of us do not hear the call of God to “Come and see.”

Maybe Jesus is calling to us and we are too distracted, or hurt, or swallowed up by life’s events; or maybe we don’t know how to see or listen to His message, or are just not listening at all.

But the message of this Gospel is that Jesus’ call – His invitation – is always open.

He invites us, like Andrew and John, to join Him for the afternoon and share a simple meal of bread and wine.

He invites us to be baptised into His family so we can receive the many gifts He desires to give us.

He invites us to know His laughter and joy; and He invites us to suffer with Him by knowing loneliness, sickness, heartache, and loss.

“Rabbi, where do you live?”

“Come and you will see.”

Our imagination can visualize a small Hebrew home, with a low doorway so large animals would not wander in.

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We can imagine that this is where Jesus lived: in a small but adequate house on a simple Hebrew street.

Jesus, and any visitors, would have to bend down to get through the door.

We are asked to bend down, too.

We are to lower ourselves in humility, patience, reconciliation, and love.

For how are we to live with the Creator of the Universe if we are unwilling to honestly look at our own souls in the light of the One who loves us?

Ultimately, we respond to Jesus’ call by inviting Him into our heart. For that is where He truly wants to live, and rest, and share a simple meal of bread and wine.

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The above post is my homily for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Year B. I delivered this homily at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island on January 18. 2015 at the 8 AM and 10 AM Masses.  Copyright © 2011- 2015  Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved  Thanks to the blog Clerical Whispers for the photograph of a typical Hebrew street scene. Their site can be located at: http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2012/05/exhibition-recreates-gospel-village-for.html

 

Christ in the Wilderness, a Russian Artist, and a Challenge

In the late 19th century a Russian painter, the noted portraitist, draughtsman, and teacher Ivan Kramskoi painted a haunting image of Jesus alone in the desert. It is a painting which expresses the internal struggle of the flesh versus the spirit. It portrays Jesus, in the early morning hours and the cold air of the dawn, with the sun rising over His back.

He is surrounded by small boulders and sits on a rock, hands in front of him, eyes filled with anguish and pain. This portrait of Christ in the desert is not one of victory; looking closely at His face you recognize the seriousness of the struggle and the irrefutable fact of Jesus’ humanity.

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Observe Christ’s clenched hands, gaze deeply into His eyes, and you will see the artist’s portrayal of a Savior that is already at the beginning of His ministry aware of the viciousness of the tempter and the burden of our sins that will weigh upon Him.

Kramskoi’s painting is so powerful because it shows not the physical tearing that was to come in the scourging and crucifixion, but the sensual, psychological, and spiritual battles that would challenge the mission and authority of Jesus Christ.

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Jesus had to confront, in that very first desert assault, whether or not He was going to be faithful to His mission; was He going to be faithful to the anointing that He received from the Father and the Spirit at His baptism?

The Gospel challenges us with the same questions: are we faithful to our Baptismal promises? Are we faithful to the Commandments? Are we faithful to the call that we received at our Confirmation to live and practice the truths that He taught us, not just when we feel like it, but everyday – even in the most difficult of circumstances?

As disciples of Christ we are on a daily basis constantly revolving around the axis of temptation and sin – faith and grace. We understand that temptation, in and of itself, is a test – it is not sin. It is only sin when we willfully place ourselves in its power, when we give into its power to overwhelm our body and soul, – a deadly power that obtains its animus and energy from the original tempter – Satan himself.

Christ lived blamelessly in the face of evil, but you say, I am not Christ, I am a weak man or woman, boy or girl. I say true, we all are, but by virtue of our faithful reception of the Sacraments we have the power of Christ’s grace within us.

Unlike Christ we don’t enter the wilderness of our own temptations alone. When we do face the anguish of our own sin, our own desolation in the face of Satan’s onslaughts, when we peer over the edge of the pit of sin – Christ’s witness tells us “Do not despair. Do not dwell in the pit. Do not accept the pit of sin as being permanent.” Jesus Christ tells us that He has instituted a Church that, with all its human sins and imperfections, still exists – in purity – to convey through its clergy the grace of God.

One of the first things that you notice about Christ in this portrait is that here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the artist has Jesus’ hands clasped together. Yet, when you walk into a Catholic or Orthodox Church, and look at the crucifix or an icon of one, you see Jesus as He ends His ministry on the Cross, with His hands unclasped, and stretched out, stretched out for each one of us.

This Lenten season we need to reach out our hands to the One, who 2000 years ago, stretched out His hands for our Redemption – and who still reaches out for us today. Reach out to Him in prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and through Jesus, reach out to those around you who are suffering in the same way, and lead them back to the love of Christ.

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Mary and Joseph’s “Yes” – The Risk of an Open Heart

Our Gospel today (4th Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1: 18-24)) provides us with the story of a young couple, Mary and Joseph, who through their pondering of God’s request for understanding and trust provide humanity with the opportunity for divine Redemption. It is in their collective “Yes” to the angel’s request, that God’s plan could be fulfilled. His strategy for humanity’s Redemption was patiently planned and executed. It was a plan, seen in the Holy Scriptures, that shows Him searching for His broken human family, seeking ways in which He can communicate His desire for love and friendship.

God is very methodical in His attempts to search for His lost children. The first question ever asked in Holy Scripture is found in the book of Genesis. It is there that God asks the question: “Where are you?” He asks of the first family, Adam and Eve, “Where are you hiding?”  We know that they were hiding because of their sin; because of their collective “No” to God’s request of them to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

With their sinful actions, God set into motion His plan for our Redemption – a plan that ultimately saw His entrance into human history to teach, heal, and redeem it from the sins of our spiritual parents. At the birth of Christ, the seven hundred year old messianic prophecies of Isaiah became a historic reality; and on a yearly basis, we celebrate that moment at Christmas.

But today we also need, in light of our Gospel, to pause and rejoice in remembrance of Mary and Joseph’s courage and willingness to say, “Yes,” to God. We need to consider that their “Yes” was not a simple act – it contained enormous risks since Mary’s circumstances after that “Yes” were at the very least – precarious.

She was a young woman, probably in her mid teens, engaged to be married, and is suddenly pregnant, not from the man she loves, but, by an unseen Holy Spirit of God; moreover, what about Joseph? He was a successful carpenter in Nazareth who had fallen deeply in love with Mary, was publicly betrothed and ready to live a happy life with her. Then the news: “I’m pregnant.” As a result under Jewish law, Mary faced a public humiliation and stoning and Joseph, stunned and confused, faced feelings of betrayal, pain, and anger. Understandably, at first, he is not ready to say “yes” to Mary and her story of divine intervention, there are few men that would.

But through divine intercession you have God, through His angel, making another request:

474px-'Joseph's_Dream',_painting_by_Gaetano_Gandolfi,_c._1790

“Joseph, Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” With Joseph’s “Yes,” to this request his pain and anger subside and are replaced with a joyful nurturing spirit that enables him to take leadership of the situation and begin acting as a faith-filled stepfather. So the collective “No” by our spiritual parents Adam and Eve, is now trumped by the collective “Yes” of the first Christian family: Mary and Joseph.

Now it may be hard for us to relate to this Gospel. Our lives may be filled with anger, worry, family resentments, and disappointments. We may conclude that this story really doesn’t relate to us because the sharp axe of pain and frustration has severed the roots of our own sense of joy, hope, and love. If that is our dilemma, we must call out to God for His direction and try to remember, that in this Christmas season we can, with His help, change our focus. We can say, maybe for the first time with maturity, “Yes” to God and His call to us. You see the story of Mary and Joseph and the Christ child is absolutely relevant. For the angel’s request to Joseph of “Be not afraid” applies to us, too.

The request of  “Be not afraid” involves many different opportunities: the opportunity of forgiving others who have hurt us; or confronting our own sinfulness and unburdening ourselves of our sins, or the opportunity of being a person who desires to seriously investigate their faith and explore the reasons why we believe.

You see all of this involves the same risk that Mary and Joseph experienced: the risk of exposing our mind, heart, and soul to God’s love and allowing Jesus, through His sacramental grace, to be joyfully born into our own hearts and to give us the courage to truly live as a Catholic Christian.

So my brothers and sisters, as we make our final preparations for the celebration of Christmas, let us make every effort to imitate Mary and Joseph by saying “Yes” to God’s call, and in so doing, open the doors of our own hearts to provide a loving home for the Lord.

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Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. This is a homily that Deacon Paul O. Iacono delivered at the 8 and 10 AM Masses at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island USA on Sunday December 22, 2013. Information on the painting: This painting was completed by Gaetano Gandolfi (1734 – 1802). It is entitled Joseph’s Dream, is oil on canvas, and is approximately 37 inches high by 30 inches wide. It was completed in 1790.  Information on the mosaic: Detail of the apse mosaic in the St Joseph’s chapel of Westminster Cathedral. It was installed in 2003, and the designer is Christopher Hobbs who worked with mosaic artist, Tessa Hunkin. – See more at: http://elmiradominicans.blogspot.com/2011/12/holy-family-of-jesus-mary-and-joseph.html#sthash.vVewiGgP.dpuf