Jesus’ Abiding Presence – Br. Jim Woodrum

Isabella Stewart Gardner Memorial Mass
(given at the Gardner Museum)

Which painting stands out to you the most in this incredible museum? In a group like ours, everyone likely has their own favorite painting, with some choices overlapping. Among the many exceptional artworks here, one that I particularly admire is Sandro Botticelli’s “The Virgin and Child with an Angel.” Painted sometime between 1470 and 1474, it was acquired by Mrs. Gardner in 1899. I’ve been reading Natalie Dykstra’s new biography, “Chasing Beauty,” where I discovered that this painting was also one of Mrs. Gardner’s favorites.[i] Interestingly, I think it bears a resemblance to a famous photo of Belle (as Mrs. Gardner was known familiarly) and her beloved son Jackie, taken in 1864.[ii] This painting, like that photograph is iconic.

When I say that, I am not suggesting that the painting is admired for its great influence or significance in a specific sphere, perhaps like Mrs. Gardner—herself to this day, an icon. Instead, I use the term “iconic” in the sense that when we gaze at this painting, it conveys something much deeper than merely a depiction of a woman, child, and angel with wheat and grapes. Like a religious icon, every detail in the painting prayerfully hints at a richer narrative—one that may require time and contemplation to fully appreciate. Similarly, in the gospels, Jesus often taught his disciples using iconic stories called parables such as the parable of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

For me, the Botticelli painting profoundly symbolizes joy, sadness, and the mystery of an abiding presence. The joy is represented by a young mother holding her infant son, reminiscent of the 1864 photo of Belle and Jackie. Natalie Dykstra describes the sadness as “Botticelli’s Madonna cradling the boy she knows will die.” While Belle understood that her son would one day pass away, she, like Jesus’ mother Mary, would witness that death.

The mystery of abiding presence in the painting alludes to the centerpiece of this morning’s service: The Holy Eucharist. We read in the Gospels that Jesus shares a final meal with his disciples on his last night alive, telling them as he breaks bread and shares a cup of wine, “This is my body and this is my blood. Whenever you eat and drink it, do this in remembrance of me.” Here, the word “remembrance” is not just a recollection but a re-membering—akin to re-attaching a severed limb to a body. When we celebrate the Eucharist as a corporate body, Jesus becomes truly present to us in that moment—bringing heaven into the temporal realm.

In the Eucharist, we experience the mystery of Jesus’ abiding presence with us. By partaking in the Eucharist, we are transformed into His body as we eat bread and drink wine. This sacramental action signifies us becoming one with Christ and with each other. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, once wrote: “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each Communion is a touch of Christ, which should develop some fresh feature of His own perfect likeness within us.”[iii]

In a few moments, you will be invited to partake in the Paschal mystery of Jesus’ abiding presence with us. If you wish, please come forward, place your hands together, and receive the bread and wine. As you do, contemplate the deeper narrative of Jesus’ presence in your joy, sadness, suffering, and all that is mysterious to you. However, if you prefer not to participate, I invite you to gaze at Botticelli’s masterpiece as Belle certainly would have, and contemplate the abundance of your life—and re-member!

[i] Dykstra, N. (2024). Chasing beauty: The life of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Mariner Books.

[ii] Ibid. p. 51

[iii] Benson, R. (1939). The Religious Vocation. A.R. Mowbray & Co.

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