The Retablo of Our Life

Sermon Preached on November 6, 2011
Feast of All Saints - Year A

Front page of The Chicago Tribune  - the story above the fold – “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.” The lead article in the World News section begins, “Blessed are Those who Mourn.” Business News: “Blessed are the Meek”; Local News: “Blessed are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness.”  Sports: “Chicago Bears defeat Green Bay Packers – Blessed are the Merciful”; and leading the Op-Ed section is a piece called, “Blessed are the Pure in Heart.”

Sadly, you and I are not likely to encounter this newspaper.  Our life is filled with tension.  Tension within our families oozes into our churches, our workplaces, our schools, and our government; tension in our schools oozes into our communities; tension in our workplace often oozes back into our homes; and tension in our government just oozes.  In the meantime, the media acts as a circus mirror reflecting exaggerated and distorted images back onto all of these systems creating even more tension until the anxiety mounts to overwhelming levels and we begin to wonder if there really is any way out.

The Feast of All Saints invites us to remember all those individuals – that great cloud of witnesses – who over the centuries have managed somehow to live lives of faith amidst the tensions of their own times.  While on vacation in New Mexico last week, I was once again drawn to the popular folk-art retablos.

This type of religious painting flourished in New Mexico prior to statehood in 1912. Several painters and their workshops created painted wood panels depicting various saints and holy figures. These artists were called santeros (“saint-makers”).  The images were used for worship in churches and in private homes. This type of art was first introduced to the region by the Spaniards as a means of converting the Indian population.  While the original retablos were painted on tin by artists with academic artistic training, in remote, northern New Mexico, a number of self-taught artists began using materials found in nature – mixing their own pigments – to decorate roughly-cut wooden panels.  While the images recall folk-art traditions, an iconography provided by the Catholic church was strictly followed in order that the stories of the saints could be understood by the largely illiterate population.  By the time the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821, the New Mexican retablos tradition ended and most santeros were forced out of business as traders brought inexpensive, framed prints of holy figures into the region.[1]  Today small retablos – on wood or tin – can be purchased at nearly every gift shop from Albuquerque to Taos. 

What draws me to the retablos is their story-telling aspect.  I’m not sure there is anything comparable in our area.  Take, for example, the life of St. Barbara. The story goes that Barbara, who lived in the 3rd century, was the daughter of a wealthy man who kept her locked in a tower to guard her from the outside world.  Despite her father’s precautions, Barbara learns about Christ and secretly becomes a Christian. When her father learns of this, he kills her.  As punishment, the father is struck by lightning and his body is consumed by flame. Looking at a typical retablos of Saint Barbara one sees Barbara, a tower, and often, a bolt of lightening - all one needs to recall the details of her saintly life.  Incidentally, Barbara is known as the patron of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives because her association with lightening.

Another popular saint in New Mexico is San Pasqual, the patron saint of cooks.  His image can be found on just about anything kitchen-related from dishtowels to aprons and, of course, on retablos.  San Pascual was born on May 24, 1540, the Feast of Pentecost – in Spanish La Pascua del Espiritu Santo – hence his name, Pascual.  Here is his story as told – appropriately enough - by Rocky Durham, an instructor at the world-renowned Santa Fe School of Cooking:

“The son of peasants, from the age of seven Paschal worked as a shepherd. Even as a child he showed signs of the profound devotion that would become one of the most prominent features of his character, along with charity, self-sacrifice, and courtesy to others. It is said he even taught his flock of sheep to kneel and pray.

When he was 24, Paschal was received as a lay brother among the Franciscan friars of the Alcantarine Reform. In the cloister, his duties were to prepare meals and keep the kitchen clean. He was hesitant to accept such a role; it was hard work, and he feared it would keep him from his prayers. However, Paschal found cooking to be meditative, and discovered that he could be deep in prayer and still prepare food. One legend says that Paschal summoned angels to help him with his chores, so that he could pause to pray.

Paschal died in the town of Villa Real on May 17, 1592. His body lay in state, where it proved incorruptible – a sign that he might be a saint. Paschal was beatified in 1618 and canonized in 1690. Pope Leo VIII declared St. Paschal the special heavenly protector of all Eucharistic congresses and associations, [but he is more popularly known as] the patron saint of cooks and kitchens, sheep and shepherds.”[2]

While traditional images of Pasqual depicting him in Franciscan robes holding a monstrance – signifying his devotion to the Eucharist, most folk-art renderings depict him in his Franciscan robes in front of a kitchen fire. But one can see how either image might call to mind some details of his life.

We celebrate the Feast of All Saints today to be reminded of the stories of those faithful persons who have gone before us – that great cloud of witnesses who cry out to us in the midst of the tension of our life, who beckon us on despite the anxious times we live in, who proclaim to us that we too are “children of God.”  And what is the story of our life?  It is simply this: 

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are . . . . Beloved, we are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”[3]

The Rio Grande
And what image might we set before ourselves this day to remind us of our story?  What symbol might we paint upon the retablo of our life so that others might recall our story?  Perhaps it should be the image or symbol of the baptismal waters.  For it is through Holy Baptism that God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.   And it is with the water of baptism that we purify ourselves, just as Jesus Christ is pure.  Let us [gather together at the font to] renew our baptismal vows.

[1] This brief history of retablos comes from “A Century of Retablos: The Janis and Dennis Lyon Collectino of New Mexican Santos, 1780-1880,” Resource Library of Traditional Fine ArtsOrganization, Inc. (2007) accessed on November 5, 2011.
[2] Rocky Durham, “Southwest Flavor: Heavenly Cooking,” New MexicoMagazine, May 2011 accessed on November 5, 2011.
[3] 1 John 3:1-3.