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Ma Nishtana – What has changed?

Peter's Vision, c.1658-59 Rembrandt Graphische Sammlung, Munich

The Vision of St. Peter, c.1658-59
Graphische Sammlung, Munich


The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.  And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”  And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”  This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Acts 10:9-23


There’s more to school than learning your lessons. Half of the work of school is figuring out school, and consciously or unconsciously we all figure out how the system works. If the teacher says it twice, it’s on the test. If you’re asked a question in Sunday School (Formation!) and you don’t know the answer, try “Because he loves us.” The whole enterprise is one of being ready when you are questioned.

Sometimes, to our great relief, the quizzing can simple and transactional (“What is the capital of Nebraska?”), and at other times it’s complicated (“What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”). In that space before you answer, other questions come to mind: Does the questioner want to know your opinion? Is there a single right answer? Is the question that’s been spoken actually a different question in disguise? What are you really asking? Why are you asking? And if you’re asked something by the all-knowing Deity, then it can really mess with your head.

The Bible is full of stories with uncomfortable questions. Sometimes there’s no answer but to hand the question back to the one who asks:

“Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Ezekiel 37: 1-14

 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Revelation 7

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  John 21: 15-19

People of faith live with questions and search for answers. Most of us expect that someday God will hold us accountable, or at the very least have a serious discussion with us about our spiritual lives. So we read, we think, we discuss, we pray. Reciting our lessons and recounting our history helps us review what we’ve been taught and pass on that knowledge.

Ma nishtana? How is this night different from all other nights?

But what if God wants to teach us something new? How are we to know if we’re to stand firm and recite what we’ve been taught, or stop and open our minds? Lord, lead us not into temptation!

Peter finds himself in this confusing situation during his rooftop vision. He’s given a directive “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” that he takes as a test and a temptation, and so he gives the answer he’s been taught. He speaks the truth he knows.

And that’s when God gives him something new. “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”  It’s new, but it’s not clear. It’s perplexing. Peter will have to ponder a while. And that’s when Cornelius’ men show up at the gate and the Spirit returns to tell Peter to accompany them.    

It turns out that the lesson is not actually about food or killing or keeping kosher. It’s about people and about grace. “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”  God leads Peter, not into temptation, but to a corner and tells him to take the turn.

Scary stuff. It’s hard to know even what kind of test we’re taking, much less what the answer is. Who’s asking? Why are they asking? Is this a trap? If Peter was perplexed and pondering then I suppose we should expect to be too. But somehow we have to be open, ready to be surprised. 

The movements of the soul – Christ among the doctors


For years this painting–Albrecht Dürer’s Christ Among the Doctors–has seemed to me profoundly odd. It’s so crowded! All those heads and hands and books. Why on earth would the artist pack a painting that way? And truth to tell, it feels a bit uncomfortable and almost creepy. What is going on here? I couldn’t figure it out, but this summer I had the opportunity to see the painting in person, and standing in front it, I felt like I finally made some progress.

I knew the subject, of course: a young Jesus is in the temple among the teachers, “and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2: 41-52)  And I knew that gesture has long been an important carrier of meaning in art. “These movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body,” wrote the great Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti. So I at least had some context for this painting that Dürer created in five days while working in Venice.

One of the things I like to do in a museum is take pictures of paintings with my cell phone. Not just pictures of the entire painting, but close ups of the interesting bits. Details. I find it helps me think. And after looking at Dürer’s painting with my camera, here’s how I see it.

It’s the composition that reveals the story. At the center of the painting is a wheel of hands. Jesus’s young hands are making a point while the pale hands of the aged, blind teacher reach out to touch his arm and restrain him from speaking. That teacher–a doctor of the Law–is painted as a caricature, and caricature, like gesture, can be a quick way to convey a entire packet of meaning. We should understand this man’s blindness as both physical and spiritual. His hands are large and cold-looking as they try to overwhelm the boy Jesus’ hands.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors hands center



Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors Christ top


While none of the other faces are caricature, some of their expressions contribute to the viewer’s feeling of discomfort or danger. On either side of Jesus are two groups of three figures that mirror each other. Two of these figures are searching in books, arguing with Jesus about points of law. Two men catch our attention with their wild eyes: one looks at Jesus with suspicion; another looks out at the viewer with an expression of alarm.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors upper left eyesAlbrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors upper right










But in the midst of this swirl of confusion, mistrust, denial, and disputation, one of the teachers has stopped arguing. He looks at Jesus with what seems to me a world-weary hope, and Jesus, who has turned away from the blind doctor, meets his eyes with compassion.


Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors Christ and Listener


While all around people are moving their hands and rustling pages, this man has closed his book, and rests his hands on top of it as he listens attentively. In this stillness, he receives understanding.


Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors books and hands


The story that began with a wheel of hands, ends with hands at rest. As he does throughout this work, Dürer first makes his point by showing us a pair of images–here two books.  And then, like a storybook’s closing “The End,” the artist completes the narrative and confirms its meaning his by placing his signature and date on a bit of paper slipped between the pages of the closed book.


Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors listening hands


“The movements of the body reveal the movements of the soul,” says the artist. “Be still and know that I am God.”


Every tongue confess

Five Joyful Mysteries

Five Joyful Mysteries
from Catechetical Scenes: Grace and Holy Baptism by Rev. M. Coerezza, S.D.B.
Salesian Catechetical Centre c/o Tang King Po School, Hong Kong, 1957.


Conversion of Saul

The Conversion of Saul
from Catechetical Scenes: Grace and Holy Baptism by Rev. M. Coerezza, S.D.B.
Salesian Catechetical Centre c/o Tang King Po School, Hong Kong, 1957.



These pictures come from a 17-volume series of catechetical pop-up books created in 1957 by the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic religious institute whose primary focus is on Christian education of young people. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the Salesian Society’s work this way: “In carrying out its principal work, instead of the old punitive or repressive system, it adopts the preventive one, thus promoting confidence and love among the children, instead of fear and hatred.”


Catechetical Scenes dust jacket

Dust Jacket blurb Catechetical Scenes



And while we’re visiting Asia, here’s a Christmas anthem from the Cheung Lo Church, Church of Christ in China.


Title: In Bethlehem A Babe Was Born (有一嬰孩生在馬槽)
Words / Music: John Carter
Chinese: 劉永生
Arrangement: 陳供生
Date: Sunday Service, December 23, 2012
Choir: Cheung Lo Church, Church of Christ in China (中華基督教會長老堂)



You are the Open Door


Photo credit: elcasfoto

Photo credit: elcasfoto


You are the Open Door
that beckons me in;
peeking around the door frame,
I begin to enter into Your glory.

You move me forward, O Eternal,
to step beyond self-made boundaries:
lift my foot over the threshold
that I might abide with You.

In the house of the Eternal
I found my questions:
waiting to be posed
they filled me with wonder.

Sit with me, Eternal Teacher,
encourage my seeking:
as I fill my hours with Your mitzvot,
so shall I be filled.

Send me through Your door
stretching up to honor Your Name,
sharing out this wonder,
enriching myself in the giving.


Baruch atah, Adonai, notei-a, b’rocheinu chayei olam.
Blessed are you, Adonai, who plants within us eternal life.


from Mishkan T’filah. A Reform Siddur. Central Conference of American Rabbis/CCAR Press, Elyse Frishman, editor, p. 129.