Category Archives: art

Saving Santa Claus

Santa’s coming to town for Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Parade. From the parade he’ll go into the store  for Black Friday and be there for the rest of the days till Christmas.

But Santa Claus is more than a salesman, isn’t he? He’s a saint– Saint Nicholas. He reminds us Christmas is for giving rather than getting. His story of quiet giving mirrors God’s love shown in Jesus Christ.

Telling his story is one of the ways we can save Santa Claus from being captured by Macys and Walmart and all the rest. First, take a look at our version for little children. Then, you might want to go on to our  modest contribution for bigger children– like us:

St. Martin of Tours, November 11

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Martin of Tours is a saint worth reflecting on. Saints are the antidotes to the poison of their times, Chesterton said,  so what poison did Martin confront?

One was the poison of militarism. Martin was born into a military family in 316,  his father a Roman officer who arose through the ranks and  commanded the legions on the Roman frontier along the Rhine and Danube rivers. When his son was born his father saw him as a soldier like himself. He named him Martin, after Mars, the god of war.

Rome was mobilizing then to stop invading barbarian tribes, and soldiers, like the emperors Constantine and Diocletian, were its heroes.  But Martin wanted nothing to do with war. As a young boy he heard a message of peace and non-violence from Christians he knew. Instead of a soldier, he became a Christian catechumen, over his father’s strong objections.

Martin was a lifelong peacemaker. He died on his way as a bishop to settle a dispute among his priests.

Another poison Martin confronted was the poison of careerism. Elected bishop of Tours by the people, Martin adopted a lifestyle unlike that of other bishops of Gaul, who were increasingly involved in imperial  administration and adopting the privileged style that came with it.

Bishops set themselves up in the cities;  Martin preferred to minister in the country, to the “pagani”, the uneducated poor.

Are the poisons of militarism and careerism around today? We remember our war veterans today.So many died in terrible wars these 100 years and many bear the scars of war. Militarism, the glamorizing of war, is still around.  So is careerism .

The story that epitomizes Martin, of course, is his meeting with a beggar in a cold winter as he was coming through the gate in the town of Amiens, still a soldier but also a Christian catechumen. He stopped and cut his military cloak in two and gave one to the poor man. That night, the story goes, Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing the beggar’s cloak. “Martin gave me this,” he said.

Pope Benedict XVI commented on this event.

“ Martin’s gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist… It’s the logic of sharing.

May St Martin help us to understand that only by a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if an authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.”

Well said.

In medieval Europe farmers, getting ready for winter at this time, put aside food and meat for the cold days ahead. Martin’s feast day was a reminder to them to put aside something for the poor. The poor are always with us; are we remembering them?

Today  Veterans’ Day in the USA honors those who fought in our country’s wars. It was originally called Armistice Day celebrating the end of fighting between the Allies and Germany on November 11, 1918. The United States lost 116,516 troops in the 1st World War; other countries lost millions more. The wars that followed added to that count.

Saints Simon and Jude

Simon Rubens

St. Jude LaTourSaints Simon and Jude, whose feast we celebrate October 28, are mentioned only a few times in the New Testament list of apostles,  tenth and eleventh respectively. (Mark 3,13-19, Luke 6,12-16)

Simon is called  `the Zealot,’ either because he was zealous for the Jewish law or because he was a member of the Zealot party, which in the time of Jesus sought to overthrow Roman domination by force.

Some of Jesus’ followers,  the Gospels indicate, were hardly pacifists. Peter was ready to use his sword in the garden of Gethsemani when the temple guards came to seize Jesus;  James and John told Jesus to call down fire from heaven on the hostile Samaritans whom they met on their journey to Jerusalem.

Simon, therefore, may have thought of revolution when he answered Jesus’ call .

Jude, called “Thaddeus” to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot, may be the brother of James, the son of Alphaeus, some interpreters of the Gospel say. If that’s so, he’s also a relative of Jesus. He may be the author of the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament.

Early Christian traditions – all difficult to prove historically – locate the ministry of these apostles in places as far apart as Britain and Persia; one important legend from 3rd century Syria says they were apostles to Syria. If so, we ask their intercession for that troubled place today.

Knowing little about  Simon and Jude may be a good thing, because then we have to look to their mission to know them – they were apostles. Even if we don’t know exactly where each of them went, they were apostles. The mission of the apostles was to follow Jesus. “ As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus says in the Gospel of John. He also said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

God made his will known to the apostles in due time. They didn’t decide what to do or where to go by themselves. They knew God’s will day by day, as we do.  So often, it was unexpected and perhaps not what they planned.

“Your will be done,” we say in the Lord’s Prayer. That’s an apostle’s prayer. We try to make it our prayer too.

Our Lady of Sorrows: September 15

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The Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated the day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). It’s also eight days after Mary’s birth (September 7). So this feast, we should remember, recalls Mary’s sorrows, her lifelong sorrows. 

When Jesus was born, the old man Simeon  told Mary a sword would pierce her heart. Today’s readings and prayers recall her final experience of that sword, when she stood beneath the Cross of her Son. But Mary experienced sorrow all her life. She is Our Lady of Sorrows. An earlier feast, the Seven Sorrows of Mary, made her lifelong sorrows more explicit.   

What were Mary’s lifelong sorrows? She was a human being and a believer. She experienced what all human beings experience- we’re contingent beings. An infant cries as it enters this world. “Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain.” (Psalm 90) You hear that complaint often in the psalms. It’s a human complaint.

Faith doesn’t inoculate us against sorrow. We don’t see clearly the promises of God. Mary, like every believer, experienced the sorrow that comes from not knowing. Her life, like ours, was not immune to sorrow.

The sword of sorrow struck Mary most deeply at the death of her Son. Mark’s gospel describes some onlookers at Jesus’ crucifixion: There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome.” They were looking on from a distance, not emotionally distanced. They were deeply engaged in the sorrow before them.  (Mark 15, 40-41) 

John’s gospel brings some of the women closer.  Mary, the Mother of Jesus stands at the cross itself. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”

Mary stands by the Cross of Jesus, close by, not at a distance. She’s not absorbed in her own suffering, not afraid to see. Her standing by the Cross is significant. She enters the mystery of her Son’s suffering through compassion. 

She stood by him. Compassion doesn’t experience another’s suffering exactly, and it may not lead to taking another’s suffering away. Compassion enters suffering to break the isolation suffering causes. It helps someone bear their burden.  The sword, the spear, the sorrow, pierces both hearts, in different ways.

Our prayer for today’s feast says that when her Son “was lifted high on the Cross” his mother stood by and shared his suffering. “Grant that your Church, participating with the Virgin Mary in the Passion of Christ, may merit a share in his Resurrection.

Where is the Passion of Lord? It’s in the human lives of each one of us. It’s in the poor. It’s in the earth we’re destroying. Sometimes we can do something to relieve that suffering. Like Mary, we’re always called to stand close by as she did, and see. 

For a commentary on John’s Gospel see here.

For a study on Mary on Calvary see here.

For readings for the feast and the Stabat Mater see here.

The Triumph of the Cross: September 14

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Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

This ancient ecumenical feast,  celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, commemorates the dedication of a great church in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. Called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was built by the Emperor Constantine and was dedicated on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.

Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.

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Tomb of Jesus

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Calvary

Pilgrims still visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated , after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.

Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”

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Egyptian Coptic Christians

Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars  expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.

For more on its history, see here.

And a video here.

Readings for the Triumph of the Cross

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“Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Psalm 78, Responsorial Psalm) We remember his great works here. How can we forget them.

The Season of Creation, September 1st -October 5th

1 September 2022, Pope Francis writes:

Dear brothers and sisters!

“Listen to the voice of creation” is the theme and invitation of this year’s Season of Creation.  The ecumenical phase begins on 1 September with the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, and concludes on 4 October with the feast of Saint Francis.  It is a special time for all Christians to pray and work together to care for our common home.  Originally inspired by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, this Season is an opportunity to cultivate our “ecological conversion”, a conversion encouraged by Saint John Paul II as a response to the “ecological catastrophe” predicted by Saint Paul VI back in 1970. 

If we learn how to listen, we can hear in the voice of creation a kind of dissonance.  On the one hand, we can hear a sweet song in praise of our beloved Creator; on the other, an anguished plea, lamenting our mistreatment of this our common home.

The sweet song of creation invites us to practise an “ecological spirituality” (Laudato Si’, 216), attentive to God’s presence in the natural world.  It is a summons to base our spirituality on the “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (ibid., 220).  For the followers of Christ in particular, this luminous experience reinforces our awareness that “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (Jn 1:3).  In this Season of Creation, we pray once more in the great cathedral of creation, and revel in the “grandiose cosmic choir” made up of countless creatures, all singing the praises of God.  Let us join Saint Francis of Assisi in singing: “Praise be to you, my Lord, for all your creatures” (cf. Canticle of Brother Sun).  Let us join the psalmist in singing, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Ps 150:6).

Tragically, that sweet song is accompanied by a cry of anguish.  Or even better: a chorus of cries of anguish.  In the first place, it is our sister, mother earth, who cries out.  Prey to our consumerist excesses, she weeps and implores us to put an end to our abuses and to her destruction.  Then too, there are all those different creatures who cry out.  At the mercy of a “tyrannical anthropocentrism” (Laudato Si’, 68), completely at odds with Christ’s centrality in the work of creation, countless species are dying out and their hymns of praise silenced.  There are also the poorest among us who are crying out.  Exposed to the climate crisis, the poor feel even more gravely the impact of the drought, flooding, hurricanes and heat waves that are becoming ever more intense and frequent.  Likewise, our brothers and sisters of the native peoples are crying out.  As a result of predatory economic interests, their ancestral lands are being invaded and devastated on all sides, “provoking a cry that rises up to heaven” (Querida Amazonia, 9).  Finally, there is the plea of our children.  Feeling menaced by shortsighted and selfish actions, today’s young people are crying out, anxiously asking us adults to do everything possible to prevent, or at least limit, the collapse of our planet’s ecosystems.

Listening to these anguished cries, we must repent and modify our lifestyles and destructive systems.  From its very first pages, the Gospel calls us to “repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3:2); it summons us to a new relationship with God, and also entails a different relationship with others and with creation.  The present state of decay of our common home merits the same attention as other global challenges such as grave health crises and wars.  “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Laudato Si’, 217).

As persons of faith, we feel ourselves even more responsible for acting each day in accordance with the summons to conversion.  Nor is that summons simply individual: “the ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion” (ibid., 219).  In this regard, commitment and action, in a spirit of maximum cooperation, is likewise demanded of the community of nations, especially in the meetings of the United Nations devoted to the environmental question.  

The COP27 conference on climate change, to be held in Egypt in November 2022 represents the next opportunity for all to join in promoting the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement.  For this reason too, I recently authorized the Holy See, in the name of and on behalf of the Vatican City State, to accede to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, in the hope that the humanity of the 21st century “will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities” (ibid., 65).  The effort to achieve the Paris goal of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C is quite demanding; it calls for responsible cooperation between all nations in presenting climate plans or more ambitious nationally determined contributions in order to reduce to zero, as quickly as possible, net greenhouse gas emissions.  This means “converting” models of consumption and production, as well as lifestyles, in a way more respectful of creation and the integral human development of all peoples, present and future, a development grounded in responsibility, prudence/precaution, solidarity, concern for the poor and for future generations.  Underlying all this, there is need for a covenant between human beings and the environment, which, for us believers, is a mirror reflecting “the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying”.  The transition brought about by this conversion cannot neglect the demands of justice, especially for those workers who are most affected by the impact of climate change.

For its part, the COP15 summit on biodiversity, to be held in Canada in December, will offer to the goodwill of governments a significant opportunity to adopt a new multilateral agreement to halt the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of species.  According to the ancient wisdom of the Jubilee, we need to “remember, return, rest and restore”.  In order to halt the further collapse of biodiversity, our God-given “network of life”, let us pray and urge nations to reach agreement on four key principles: 1. to construct a clear ethical basis for the changes needed to save biodiversity; 2. to combat the loss of biodiversity, to support conservation and cooperation, and to satisfy people’s needs in a sustainable way; 3. to promote global solidarity in light of the fact that biodiversity is a global common good demanding a shared commitment; and 4. to give priority to people in situations of vulnerability, including those most affected by the loss of biodiversity, such as indigenous peoples, the elderly and the young.

Let me repeat: “In the name of God, I ask the great extractive industries – mining, oil, forestry, real estate, agribusiness – to stop destroying forests, wetlands, and mountains, to stop polluting rivers and seas, to stop poisoning food and people”.

How can we fail to acknowledge the existence of an “ecological debt” (Laudato Si’, 51) incurred by the economically richer countries, who have polluted most in the last two centuries; this demands that they take more ambitious steps at COP27 and at COP15.  In addition to determined action within their borders, this means keeping their promises of financial and technical support for the economically poorer nations, which are already experiencing most of the burden of the climate crisis.  It would also be fitting to give urgent consideration to further financial support for the conservation of biodiversity.  Even the economically less wealthy countries have significant albeit “diversified” responsibilities (cf. ibid., 52) in this regard; delay on the part of others can never justify our own failure to act.  It is necessary for all of us to act decisively.  For we are reaching “a breaking point” (cf. ibid., 61).

During this Season of Creation, let us pray that COP27 and COP15 can serve to unite the human family (cf. ibid., 13) in effectively confronting the double crisis of climate change and the reduction of biodiversity.  Mindful of the exhortation of Saint Paul to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (cf. Rom 12:15), let us weep with the anguished plea of creation.  Let us hear that plea and respond to it with deeds, so that we and future generations can continue to rejoice in creation’s sweet song of life and hope.

Rome, Saint John Lateran, 16 July 2022,  Memorial of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

St. Bridget of Sweden ( 1303-1373)

St. Bridget of Sweden, whose feast is July 23rd, was a 14th century mystic who strongly influenced Christian spirituality and art, She was a woman who challenged the powerful of her day, first the court of Sweden and later the papal court in Rome.

Born into an influential Swedish family with ties to the royal court. Bridget married Ulf Gudmarrson when she was 14. They had 8 children, one of whom is also honored as a saint, Catherine of Sweden. Bridget was known for the care she took of the sick in her neighborhood. She brought her children with her on her visits, to teach them this work of mercy.

As a child of 10 Bridget was attracted to the mystery of the Passion of Jesus and that mystery inspired her prayer and spirituality ever afterwards. Her deep understanding of his mystery made her fearless in challenging injustice when she saw it. Bridget protested the wanton living of Swedish royalty and its uncaring attitude towards the poor. After her husband’s death in 1334 Bridget founded a religious community, continuing to speak out fearlessly against the lifestyle and privileges of the powerful.

In 1350 Bridget went to Rome to gain approval for her Order of the Most Holy Savior, the Brigittines. There she was inspired to confront the papacy. The pope , fearing the turmoil in the Papal States, had fled to in Avignon in France. Bridget strongly urged him to return to Rome. The pope was a shepherd, she said, who should be with his sheep, especially in times of turmoil.

Bridget’s prayers and revelations, widely circulated in her time, were reminders of what Jesus said and did, especially the example he gave in his Passion. She inspired people to meditate on the mysteries of Christ and gain wisdom from them.

She also inspired artists in their portrayals of the mysteries of Christ. An example is her vision of Mary and Joseph adoring the Child lying on the ground; by his Incarnation he made this world his home. Previously, Mary was portrayed at the crib, lying down after giving birth. Now she joins Joseph, the shepherds (humanity) and the earth itself adoring the Word made flesh.

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Adoration of the Child, Giorgione, 1507, National Gallery, Washington

Bridget also inspired the portrayal of Mary holding the body of Jesus after his crucifixion and the devotion of the Pieta. Holding him then, she recalls holding him at his birth in Bethlehem, Bridget says.

Rhine Valley, 14th century

In 1371, Bridget and some of her family went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land; her vivid accounts from there further stimulated the religious imagination of her contemporaries. On July 23, 1373 she died in Rome. Bridget is a patron of Sweden and of Europe.

The church always needs strong women like Bridget, firm in faith and unafraid to speak out. Society too needs women like her in politics and business to steer its course into the future.

Prayer of St. Bridget

Jesus, true and fruitful Vine! Remember the abundant outpouring of blood shed from your sacred body as juice from grapes in a wine press.    From your side, pierced with a lance by a soldier, blood and water poured out until there was not left in your body a single drop.

Through your bitter Passion and your precious blood poured out, receive my soul when I come to die. Amen.

O good Jesus! Pierce my heart so that my tears of penance and love will be my bread day and night; may I be converted entirely to you, may my heart be your home, may my conversation please you, may I merit heaven at the end of my life and be with you and your saints, to praise you forever. Amen

Mary’s Visits: Fatima

When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth she said “all generations shall call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” All generations know her; occasionally over the years Mary visits some in apparitions. 

Three prominent apparitions of Mary have occurred in the last 500 years commemorated in major Marian shrines –in Mexico City, Lourdes and Fatima. In 1531, she appeared to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego on a hillside outside of Mexico City. In 1858 Mary appeared to 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes in France as she was gathering firewood. In 1917 Mary appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima in Portugal. These are major pilgrimage sites today. Three liturgical feasts in our church calendar honor these apparitions.

The depictions of Mary in art follow closely, if not perfectly, the accounts the visionaries gave of the apparitions. Mary, arms folded in prayer, prays for her children on earth and she encourages them to pray with her.  

The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes made by Fabisch in 1864 and placed in the grotto at Lourdes in France is a model for the many statues of Our Lady of Lourdes in churches and shrines throughout the world. We have one in our Lourdes Grotto in Jamaica, NY. (below)

Various images of Our Lady of Fatima exist; we have one in our monastery chapel.(above) Her bright white garments witness to the glory the visionaries saw surrounding her. She brings the glory of heaven to brighten the earth, as Jesus did at his transfiguration. “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:2-3)

Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe show her in the native dress of the time; she identifies with the native peoples then under colonial subjugation.

Contemporaries of Bernadette and the children of Fatima faced trials of another kind than the native peoples of Mexico. Secularizing governments promoted unbelief in society and wars were increasing in number and intensity. Mary’s appearances were not only the occasion of physical cures and healing. To ordinary people then and afterwards Mary’s appearances brought reassurance and renewed faith in the promise of God’s glorious power and presence. Their faith was real.

In his letter Laudato si’ Pope Francis calls upon Mary to visit us today as we struggle to care for the earth we have neglected. I like this image of Mary, holding her Son, which we have in our Mary Garden. Creation seems to raise its voice in praise. Her Son, Jesus Christ, offers us life-giving Wisdom. “We can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom,” the pope says. May she hold in her hand our wounded world.

The Ethiopian Eunuch

Philip eunuch

Readings
Rembrandt’s biblical subjects are always interesting. They say as a child he used to sit with his mother while she prayed and look at the illustrations in her prayerbook. All his life the painter was attracted to the bible. Even without a commission, he’d sketch a biblical story that caught his eye.

Here’s the Ethiopian eunuch–our reading from Acts for today– kneeling and looking intently at the stream of water, waiting to be baptized by Philip the deacon. He’s been profoundly moved by the story he’s been told.

His servant stands behind him holding his rich outer garments. He’s the queen’s treasurer, don’t forget. An imposing guard on horseback, armed to the teeth, maybe an Ethiopian security agent, looks on. The rest of his retinue stand back, maybe puzzled by it all and anxious to get on their way on the long trip home from Jerusalem.

Like Zacchaeus, another rich man Luke recalls, the Ethiopian sees something greater than riches in Jesus and the water promising life.

Though visibly absent, the Holy Spirit who orchestrated this scene is here too. .

How does it all turn out, we wonder? When they get home, does the eunuch get sacked because the security agent turns him in for foolish behavior? Does the servant who watched the baptism become a follower of Jesus too? Did the eunuch tell the Queen the story of Jesus? Did he ever get back to Jerusalem again?

Luke is a wonderful story-teller. In his day Ethiopia was the end of the world, and so the gospel reaches there. Luke is a wonderful story-teller, and Rembrandt is too.

A Little Boy, Five Barley Loaves and Two Fish

Andrew, brother of Peter, says to Jesus when he asked his disciples to provide food for a hungry crowd: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” (John 6:1-15)

Duk Soon Fwang, an artist friend of mine, has been thinking a good while about that little boy and what he brought to Jesus. “We don’t know the little boy’s name and he only has a few loaves and fish to give. He’s like me,” she said. “But Jesus sees what he brings and makes it more.” 

She’s almost completed a painting of the boy and Jesus, which you can see above. 

At Mass this morning, we read that gospel story before we brought small pieces of bread and a cup of wine to the altar. I remembered what she said. This is our story. We bring what we have and God makes it more.

More on Duk Soon and her work here and here.