About a year ago I walked into my parish and was surprised to see that the elaborate tapestry that normally hung behind the crucifix in back of the main altar had been removed. On the wall in its place were three, large figures of the Blessed Mother, the apostle John, and Mary Magdalene. The figures were painted on over-sized paper looking at the crucifix and sort of tacked onto the white wall. They appeared to be floating in space, and, frankly, I felt they looked a little out of place.
The next time I walked into church, about a month later, an amazing larger-than- life mural had been painted behind the figures. A depiction of Jerusalem, the Kidron Valley, and Golgotha covered the entire area once covered by the tapestry. The figures looking at Jesus were no longer floating in space, but were now perfectly situated in the foreground of this defining moment in Christian history, the death of our Lord Jesus.
What was it that caused these initially isolated and out-of-place figures to now connect so well with the crucifix? It was the background. The background connected the figures to the place and time of the story; Jerusalem under Roman occupation in 33 A.D. It provided context and detail; Golgotha was a rocky, desolate place outside the city walls. The background showed the relationship between the figures and the crucifix; Mary, Jesus’ mother, John, his beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalene, his devoted friend remained with Jesus when everyone else had abandoned him. The background of the painting was the key to unlocking the meaning and relationships shown in the foreground.
In our Catholic Christian faith we find the same relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Without knowledge of Ancient Israel, of the people who had been waiting for their promised Messiah for thousands of years, our Christian faith is really out of historical place, floating in theological space. It is the people and events of the Hebrew Scriptures that paint the background and set the stage for Jesus’ entrance into the world at his birth in Bethlehem. Christianity is not an isolated religion begun from scratch, but the fulfillment of a covenant relationship between Yahweh and his Chosen People, the Jews. Judaism is the background and Christianity is the foreground of our Catholic faith.
To study and to learn more about the people and events of the Old Testament is to live our Catholic faith in a much richer way. To ignore these people and events is to live as though we were spiritual orphans, but we are not. Like the Israelites, God has also chosen us to be his children. The benefits of learning about our spiritual heritage can be compared to the benefits of learning about our personal, family heritage. Like Old Aunt Mabel, who may have passed down her famous blueberry muffin recipe and her knack for knowing just when to serve them at a family gathering, King David passed down in the book of Psalms his legendary ability to praise God through poetry and song in the good times and in the bad. In the same way we may learn from our family that we are predisposed to diabetes, alcoholism, or other genetic conditions, so do we learn from the Creation Story that we have inherited original sin and a strong tendency toward actual sin. In both our physical and our spiritual lives, knowing our history can help us take measures against the needless suffering experienced by some of our ancestors.
Although I was troubled when I saw the beginnings of the new mural at my parish, I am now thankful for it every time I go to mass. It reminds me to listen more carefully to the first reading, the one that is often selected from the Old Testament. It reminds me that our local parish belongs to a larger history and that the issues of our place and time, while important, are only one sequence in the larger Judeo-Christian chronology where God’s love for his people has constantly won out. It reminds be to teach my children that God’s love is both the background and the foreground of our Catholic Christian faith.
Copyright 2010 Heidi Bratton