KEEPING A LOW PROFILE (Jn 3:13-17): 14 September 2008 (Feast of the Triumph of the Cross)

KEEPING A LOW PROFILE (Jn 3:13-17):  14 September 2008 (Feast of the Triumph of the Cross)

Today’s Readings

Pieter Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” depicts the well-known story of a young boy who dons his manmade wings and, against the instruction of his inventor-father, flies too high and too close to the sun.  The result?  As expected, the heat of the sun melts the wax holding his wings together, and the reckless boy falls to his death.

At first glance, there seems to be something wrong with Brueghel’s painting.  The painter devotes most of the canvas not to the fall of Icarus, but to ordinary people going about their everyday routines, blissfully unaware of the tragedy that has befallen Icarus.  The only sign of Icarus is found in the lower righthand corner of the painting:  a pair of legs splashing and sinking  into the waters.

This famous painting by Brueghel has inspired a poem by W. H. Auden called “Musee Des Beaux Arts.”  Auden begins his poem by declaring:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters:  how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

How true, isn’t it?  Sometimes we’re tempted to think that human suffering–especially our own–takes centerstage.  But that happens only in the movies, where at the right moment, the story’s pace slows down and appropriately moving music rises in order to call attention to the ongoing suffering.  But our real-life pains–even the deepest ones–rarely get the close-ups they deserve.

I remember the summer my father died.  I was only in fifth grade, but I was not too young to understand the tragedy that befell our family.  Everyone’s tear-streaked faces and broken voices told me in no uncertain terms that our lives would never the same again.  After a few hours, the family had to make those arrangements all families experiencing a death go through.  I remember one brother making arrangements with the funeral parlor, a sister-in-law contacting the insurance company, and another brother relaying the news to our relatives and friends.

One sister was assigned to get mourning clothes for everyone, and she took me with her to a nearby shopping center.  I will never forget how as we stepped out of the house, a frightened young boy holding onto his sister, I was greeted by…sunlight!  I remember asking myself how the sun could shine so brightly on a day like that. And when we reached the shopping center, I was even more bewildered at how the crowds of people went about their business, unaware of our private tragedy, and how normal they looked and acted!

It was then, I think, that I began to understand, although not completely, that human suffering, as Auden’s poem is saying, always seems to happen in the midst of things.  Our pains keep a low profile.  And as in Brueghel’s painting, with the exception of tragedies that are extensively covered by the media, rarely does the world pause to even acknowledge our private tragedies because rarely does it learn of them.

Today’s feast is called the Triumph of the Cross–which can be quite misleading.  As a kid, I was always under the impression that the whole world held its breath during that moment of  moments when our Lord made the ultimate self-sacrifice to redeem all of creation.  That’s certainly the impression you get from all those Jesus movies, not to mention the accounts of our Lord’s crucifixion in the four gospels.  But nothing can be farther from the truth:  Outside the gospels, we find very little historical reference to this event.  And that day in Jerusalem, most of the city probably went about their usual routines.

I used to wonder why.  How can this be when the Lord’s death on the cross must be the one central event in world history?   But I think now, thanks to Brueghel’s painting and Auden’s poem, I understand a little bit better why this was so and why it had to be so.  In embracing human suffering, our Lord decided to embrace pain exactly the way we experience it–in the midst of things, surrounded by people preoccupied with mundane activities.

By choosing to suffer the way we usually do, the Lord shows us that he is very much present in our most private and secret pains.  Even if the world passes us by, even when people fail to notice our tragedies, the Lord sees and the Lord knows.  His eyes are on us:  He sees our pain, and he will bless our pain so that like his own, it can be redemptive.  Moreover, the Lord teaches us to open our eyes and keep them on others, so that we don’t pass them by when we chance upon them bearing their pains.

Here is a Quick Question for you:  Have you ever experienced suffering that you wish others had noticed or had shown more concern for?  Think about it, and share a thought, a feeling, or a question.

(image:  Pieter Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”)

Note:  Below is the W. H. Auden’s poem in its entirety, followed by another poem also inspired by Brueghel’s painting, written by Willliam Carlos Williams.

Musee des Beaux Arts
(W. H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just  walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
(William Carlos Williams)

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning.

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