Monday, June 2, 2008

Of Rocks and Stones

Vittore Carpaccio, Meditation on the Passion
Italian, ca. 1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The readings for today’s Mass, the ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, are full of references to rocks. In the Psalm the Lord is the rock of refuge and a fortress (Psalm 31:3-4, with the response “Lord, be my rock of safety”). While, in the Gospel, Jesus uses the analogy of buildings built on stone and those built on sand for those who take His message to heart and act upon it to those who do not (Matthew 7:21-27). When storms and troubles come, the house built on stone survives; the house built on sand is destroyed.

The meanings of the words “rock” and “stone” in the Scriptures often seem to mean the same thing. I know that there have been debates over the exact meanings of the original words and their precise meanings, but in English there is little difference. We call cliffs “rock” formations, we call building materials “stone” and we call small particles of minerals “rocks” or “stones” pretty interchangeably.

These occurrences today led me to do a little musing on some rocks and stones in Scripture. The list is by no means all inclusive, just a few things that popped to mind.

God alone is my rock and my salvation” (Psalm 62:3)
In the desert, Moses strikes the rock to produce water (Exodus 17:1-7).
Christ is the “spiritual rock” that refreshed the Israelites in their wanderings (1 Corinthians 10:4).
Christ is “the living stone, rejected by human beings” and His followers are themselves “living stones to be built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
Peter is the rock on which the church is founded (Matthew 16:13-18).
Rocks and stones figure prominently in the temptation of Christ. Satan demands that Jesus change rocks into bread, that He throw Himself off the temple parapet so that He will be supported by angels “lest you dash your foot against a stone” and takes Him to a “high mountain” (a very large rock) (Matthew 4:1-9 and Luke 4:1-12).
And, of course, Jesus is laid in a tomb cut out of the rock, with a large stone blocking the opening (Matthew 27:59-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53).
On Easter morning, the stone is rolled away (Matthew 28: 2; Mark 16:2-3; Luke 24:2; John 20:1).

There are many, many such Scriptural images of stones and rocks and, in the history of Christian art there are far too many images using rocky landscapes for me to attach appropriate images. However, one of the stoniest images I can think of is the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio’s “Meditation on the Passion”. In this imaginative painting, the dead Christ is seated in a chair resembling a throne, of which the back includes a Hebrew inscription on the back. The chair is broken, as if struck by lightening and plants have begun to grow on it. To the right sits the figure of Job, dressed in a loincloth. To the left sits St. Jerome, the translator and commentator of the Bible. He is identified by the inclusion of his pet lion, located in the distance behind his chair. 

Almost everywhere one looks there are rocks. In the left background is a rocky cliff, in which there appears to be a cave, or possibly, a rock cut tomb. Small stones and parts of skeletons litter the ground. We are invited by the two figures, one from the Old Testament, one a Father of the Church to contemplate the Divine Mystery.