The Mill and the Cross

In Breughel’s panoramic painting, “The Procession to Calvary,” the fallen Savior, collapsed under the cross beam, is mostly ignored. Although he’s right in the center of things, nobody pays him too much mind. Instead, the fantastic landscape that surrounds him churns with a thousand wheels of activity, each cog connected to the other, spinning upon its fellows like the clockwork mill that sits atop a monument of stone, high above.

Breughel seems to have loved this approach, philosopher artist that he was. It made a lifetime of statements for him: E.g., “Yes, a winged man is falling from the heavens over there to my right, but I’ve got forty acres to plow and my feet are killing me.” Historic things can happen throughout a day, implies Brueghel; still, the pot boils, the baby cries, and the cow bellows to be milked; our attentions go elsewhere. The eschaton might begin its fateful crack right next door, but chances are we’ll be tying our shoelaces when it does. One of Breughel’s modern descendants is the Englishman Stanley Spencer, who used Cookham village to stand in for the world, going about its hum-drum business as its creator ambles by on the road to reality’s inversion.

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Yeshua Ha’Mashiach

In drafting my last post, “Orthodox Films Fill the Void,” I intended to end the piece with a story that would serve as a thematic button: the day after seeing Fill the Void (a remarkable film released this summer about an ultra-Orthodox family in contemporary Tel Aviv) I finally made good on a long-standing wish to visit a Messianic synagogue.

For the latter experience filled an even deeper void in its own right than the former—or filled the same void to a deeper degree.

But no less thematic was the fact that my cup had nearly runneth over the word count by the time I was done singing the praises of Fill the Void (and My Father, My Lord before it). As it is wont to runneth over here, looking back on that steamy Saturday morning last month at Congregation Beth El in Manhattan, where I first witnessed Messianic Jews sing the praises of Yeshua Ha’Mashiach, Jesus the Messiah.


More on that shortly. First, whence this desire on my part to go there, both literally and figuratively speaking? Good question. I’m glad I asked.

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Emerging from the Tomb Intact

There’s a moment in Anna Karenina in which a frustrated Anna turns to her husband. She had been very sick, but she’s better now. During her sickness, over what they thought was her deathbed, her lover and her husband reached out and clasped hands. The urgency of her illness brought about reconciliation. Karenin, the wronged husband, let go of his moral outrage and forgave both Vronsky and Anna.

Tears ensued. Grace shone forth. All felt the bliss.

At the moment I’m thinking of, Anna, back from the brink of death is annoyed over the very thing she so longed for. Her husband has forgiven her. But, as she says, “I didn’t die and now I know I have to live with your forgiveness!”

He is stunned and so are we. For in that moment comes such truth. [Read more...]

The Eucharist: Eat, Eat!

Good Letters welcomes Shannon Huffman Polson to our blogging team. Her memoir North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey was released last week.

We sit in the back pew at church with intention; there’s an easy exit if our two-year-old’s patience has run out, or if ours has. Bible stories shine down on us hopefully from brightly colored stained glass windows on either side of the church.

Earlier I made spelt French toast for breakfast and my son ate three pieces, but halfway through the service he’s hungry again. He’s played with the hymnals, and retrieved every stuffed animal from the basket at the rear of the church. We work on silent diversions when he tries to use the visitor card pen on the pews themselves. [Read more...]

Mother of Sorrows: Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary

Good Letters welcomes back former blogger Jessica Mesman Griffith, author of the new book Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters.

“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world,” begins Colm Toibin’s novella, The Testament of Mary. “There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell.”

Mary is describing the apostles who hound her as she hides from a vengeful world; they want her to confirm their Easter stories. But she could also be speaking of the angels—angels who brought her the news of her destiny carrying nails and a crown of thorns. It is this image of Mary the hunted that Toibin pursues from the Annunciation to her death. [Read more...]