|The high altar of St Mary Major, decorated today with relics for the Lenten station. Photo by the great Agnese.|
On Ember Wednesday, the Gospel is St Matthew 12, 38-50, in which the Lord rebukes the Pharisees who wish to see Him perform a sign. “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign; and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.”
In the Christian perspective, Jonah is unique and uniquely important among the prophets for two reasons. First, he personally does not say anything about Christ, as, for example, Isaiah says that a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son. In Jonah’s case, it is what happens to his body that prophesies the destiny of Jesus’s body, His death and Resurrection. Secondly, this prophetic explanation of his story is given to us by Christ Himself. He therefore became at a very early period one of the most frequently represented subjects in Christian art.
|Stories of Jonah, from a late 2nd century fresco in the Catacomb of Callixtus. From right to left, Jonah is thrown into the sea, where a monster is about to swallow him; Jonah is spat out of the sea-monster; Jonah rests under the vine. The Greek and Latin words for “whale” can also mean “sea-monster”, and the creature that swallows the prophet is usually shown as such in early Christian art.|
In the ancient paintings and sarcophagi from the catacombs of Rome and elsewhere, Jonah is almost invariably shown nude, whether he is depicted being thrown into the water, swallowed by the whale, vomited out by the whale, or lying down under the vine that God uses to shield him from the sun. His nudity emphasizes the reality of his human nature, and therefore emphasizes the reality of Christ’s human nature. It must be born in mind that early heretics like the Docetists, Gnostics, and later the Arians, were concerned to deny not so much the divinity of Christ as the humanity of God. In antiquity, the idea of a savior, sage or miracle-worker sent from heaven was not particularly difficult to accept; what many in the Roman world found much harder to believe was that God took such interest in the welfare of the human race that He actually joined it. The nude figure of Jonah, therefore, is as much an assertion of the Incarnation, against the early heresies, as it is a proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ.
|A third-century sarcophagus in the Vatican Museums’ Pio-Christian collection. This is one of the most elaborate versions of the Jonah story, and is therefore known as the Jonah Sarcophagus, although there are many other ancient representations of the prophet. Note that Noah is seen standing in a square ark above the sea-monster on the right, a clever use of the extra space to add another important Biblical episode.|
This tradition was already well established when the basilica of Saint Mary Major was built right after the ecumenical council of Ephesus, both to honor the chosen vessel of God’s Incarnation, and to re-assert this dogma of our salvation against the heretic Nestorius; the station is kept at the natural choice of church in which to read this crucial Gospel passage. Oddly enough, the traditional Roman Rite uses only one passage from the book of Jonah itself at Mass in the whole of the year; chapter 3, in which Jonah preaches repentance to the Ninivites, is read on the Monday of Passion week, and repeated at the Easter Vigil. In the traditional Ambrosian liturgy, on the other hand, the entire book (actually one of the shortest in the Bible, only 48 verses) is the first reading of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper; in the Byzantine Rite, it is read at the Easter vigil.
At the end of the same Gospel, the Mother of God Herself appears in person: “And one said unto him, ‘Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking thee.’ But He answering… said: ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?’ And stretching forth His hand towards His disciples, He said: Behold my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.’ ” These words are explained by St Gregory the Great to mean that the disciples of Christ are His brethren when they believe in Him, and His Mother when they preach Him; “For as it were, one gives birth to the Lord when he brings Him into the heart of his listener, and becomes His Mother by preaching Him, if through his voice the love of God is begotten in the mind of his neighbor.” (Homily 3 on the Gospels).
|The Coronation of the Virgin, apsidal mosaic of St. Mary Major by Jacopo Torriti, 1296|
On Friday is read at the basilica of the Twelve Apostles the Gospel of the man healed at the pool of Bethesda, John 5, 1-15, wherein “lay a great multitude of sick, of blind, of lame, of withered.” This healing may be seen as a prophecy of the mission given by Christ Himself to the Apostles, and in them to the whole Church. During His earthly ministry, when He first sent the Apostles forth, He “gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases, and all manner of infirmities. And the names of the twelve Apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter, etc. (saying) ‘Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.’ ” (Matthew 10, 1-2 and 8). Likewise, on the feast of the Ascension, we read that He renewed this commission to the Apostles, giving as one of the signs that shall follow those that believe in Him, “they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover.” Here, when Christ heals the man who is too lame to reach the pool as the Angel of the Lord stirs the water, He says to him, “Arise, take up thy bed, and walk.” In the Acts of the Apostles, the very first miracle of healing reported after the first Pentecost is that of the lame man to whom their leader says “Arise and walk.” (chapter 3, 1-16)
|Three images of Christ as healer on a 3rd-century sarcophagus, also in the Pio-Christian Collection of the Vatican Museums. From left to right, the healing of the paralytic, who is shown carrying his bed; the healing of the blind man; the healing of the woman with the issue of blood. The fourth image is Christ transforming water into wine at the wedding of Cana. In antiquity, Christ was often shown holding a magic wand to indicate that He is working a miracle; some commentators have most unfortunately chosen to understand this to mean that the early Christians thought of Christ principally as a magician.|
The Synoptic Gospels tell the story of another paralytic healed at Capharnaum, whose friends had to take the roof off the building to lower him down into the place where Jesus was preaching. (Mark 2, 1-12 and parallels) When Christ says to him first “Son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” the Pharisees grew indignant at this usurpation of God’s prerogatives. He therefore heals the man of his bodily infirmities to show that “the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins,” and then addresses him in the same terms He uses with the man at the pool of Bethesda, “Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house.”
The healed paralytic carrying his bed is another motif of great importance in early Christian art, representing the forgiveness of sins, an article of the faith which we still profess in every recitation of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Such images usually consist only of Christ and the man carrying his bed, and it is impossible to say whether we are meant to see him as the paralytic of Capharnaum or Bethesda. More likely, we are meant to think of them both at once.
The healing of the paralytic of Bethesda, from the basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ca. 550 A.D. In the same church, the paralytic of Capharnaum is shown being lowered through the roof, a rare case in which the two are clearly distinguished.
The latter, however, represents another idea of great importance to the early Church, namely, that gentiles are not obliged to live according to the religious laws of the Jews. In the early centuries, many Christians still felt themselves to be very close to their Jewish roots, and continued to follow the Mosaic law; a small but apparently rather vocal minority of these held that the same law should be binding upon all Christians. The paralytic of Bethesda, however, when reproved for violating the strict interpretation of law that no work may be done on the Sabbath, replies “He that made me whole said to me, ‘Take up thy bed, and walk.’ ” He therefore symbolizes the fact that Christ Himself has given the Church a new law, by which Christians are freed from the observance of the law of Moses.
The same idea is expressed by another common motif in early Christian art, the scene referred to as the Traditio Legis – the Handing-Down of the Law. In these images, Jesus is shown with a scroll representing the new law of the Christian faith, in the company of at least the Apostle Peter, usually also Paul, and sometimes all twelve; very often, He is passing the scroll directly to them. The Apostles, who had of course discussed this same question at the very first Council of the Church, that of Jerusalem (Acts 15), hand down to the Church and its members the new law that permanently dispenses us from the religious observances of the Old Covenant. This is certainly one of the reason why the story of the paralytic of Bethesda is read in the basilica of the Twelve Apostles.
|The Traditio Legis with Ss. Peter and Paul, from the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (prefect of Rome, died 359 A.D.) Note that as Christ is handing the scrolls of the law to the Apostles Peter and Paul, He is also stepping on the face of the sky god, here used as a symbolic figure, to represent His dominion over the heavens.|
|The Traditio Legis with all twelve Apostles, from a late-4th century imperial mausoleum in Milan, now the chapel of St Aquilinus in the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Here, Christ has one scroll in His hand, and six in the case at His feet, a total of seven; this number symbolizes perfection, and hence the perfection of the new law.|
At the Mass of Ember Saturday, the Church reads St Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration (chapter 17, 1-9) at the basilica of St Peter in the Vatican. In his homilies on this Gospel, St. John Chrysostom teaches that the purpose of the Transfiguration was to strengthen the Apostles’ faith in Christ’s divinity, so that they might not be overwhelmed with sorrow at His Passion or lose faith in His Resurrection. The Greek Church instituted a feast of the Transfiguration long before it was adopted by the West, fixing the day to August 6th, forty days, the length of Lent, before the Exaltation of the Cross. This association of the Transfiguration with the Passion is beautifully expressed by the early Byzantine mosaic in the apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna, built in the mid-6th century. The witnesses of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah above, the Apostles Peter, James and John below, represented as three sheep, are standing around a great jeweled Cross, rather than Christ in in His glory and majesty; only the face of the Lord appears, within a small medallion in the middle of the Cross, an expression of the humility with which He accepted the Passion.
The three witnesses of the Transfiguration, Ss Peter, James and John, often appear together in the Gospels as the disciples closest to Christ. Along with Peter’s brother St Andrew, they were the first disciples called to follow Him, and were present for the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4, 38-39); they were also the witnesses of the healing of the daughter of Jairus, (Mark 5, 37) and the agony in the garden (Mark 14, 33). They alone receive new names from Christ as a sign of their mission, (Mark 3, 16-17) Peter, “the Rock”, being the name given to Simon, James and John receiving the name Boanerges, “sons of thunder”. But at the Transfiguration, as in so many other places, it is Peter alone whose words the Evangelists record for us, words which the church of Rome sings this days at his very tomb, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”