Sunday, April 23, 2017

When the Pilgrimage Seems to Have Been a Bust

The gospel reading for Easter 3A is another in the well-known post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Here, he appears to two disciples who are walking to Emmaus after the events of Jesus' crucifixion. The excitement was over. Jesus was dead. Might as well go home.

Little did they know.

Caravaggio painted several versions of the supper at Emmaus. This version is from 1601. A younger-than-usual-looking Jesus (note the lack of beard) sits at table with two men while a third appears to be serving. The food on the table comprises a delicious repast for the diners and a beautiful still life for the painter: roasted chicken (feet still attached), bread, fruits.

Jesus gestures with his right hand, and one of the travelers starts to push himself out of his chair while the other gestures with both arms outstretched. It isn't clear exactly what moment this is. There is bread in front of each person at the table, so perhaps Jesus has already broken bread and the two have recognized him. The story is familiar. Jesus will soon disappear, and the two travelers will hurry back to Jerusalem to tell their story. Imagine the wonder of it - if you were the one to see Jesus after everyone thought he was dead.

One of the interesting details that the artist has included is the scallop shell pinned to the outer garment of the traveler on the right. The scallop shell might not have been known in Jesus' day, but for those in Caravaggio's time - and for Christians in preceding centuries - the shell was a specific symbol. A person wearing a scallop shell pinned to his garment was known to be a pilgrim. Most often the shell-wearing traveler was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The scallop shell, a symbol of the disciple James, was worn on the way to Santiago, to the Cathedral of St. James, where the apostle's remains are supposedly buried.

Medieval pilgrims wearing the scallop shell were entitled to food and lodging. The shell was a handy size for use as a drinking cup or as a bowl for eating. The presence of the shell on this traveler marks him as a pilgrim, a traveler on a religious journey. The only journey he had been on was to Jerusalem to see the one they had thought would redeem Israel: Jesus.

But that had ended badly. Apparently Jesus was not the one to redeem them. And though there were reports that his tomb was empty, these two hadn't seen Jesus so they couldn't verify it. He had been on pilgrimage, been to the holy city, perhaps witnessed some of the events of Holy Week, but it had been for nothing.

Until now.

The painting is Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus. 1601. London: National Gallery.

See Christ as the pilgrim in this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post. Click on the link below.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Thank You, Thomas

The first Sunday after Easter uses the same gospel reading in all three years of the lectionary: John 20:19-31. This is the story of Christ's appearance to the disciples post-resurrection and Thomas' after-Easter moment in the spotlight. Thomas is often criticized for his desire to see for himself, but I would suggest that there is another way to consider this story and Thomas' actions.

Thomas was asking, essentially, for proof of life. And interestingly, he will recognize life by seeing, by touching, Jesus' wounds. That is how he will recognize Jesus, how he will know that the one standing before him is Jesus: by his wounds. He doesn't ask Jesus to come back and perform a miracle - strike down the officials who sought to squash the Jesus Movement, heal more paralytics, elevate Thomas to a position in the inner circle of disciples, make it snow in summer.

Instead, what Thomas wants is to know that this is the Jesus who suffered. In fact, Thomas seems to be the only one willing to remember the suffering of Jesus. The other disciples seem ready to move on - and so they should - and so should we. It is after Easter, after all. And yet, moving on doesn't mean forgetting. How quickly we want to forget that Jesus suffered (because of us!). It is sometimes a battle to have people dwell in the betrayal, crucifixion and death of Jesus for even the 48 hours between Maundy Thursday evening and an Easter vigil. Too often there is a quick move (Sunday's coming!) that, intended or not, minimizes the suffering of Jesus and the reminder of all those in our world who are suffering.

For Thomas and the disciples, Sunday had come, and Thomas alone seems to remember the cost of Jesus' act of love and sacrifice. Wounds as proof of life. Thank you, Thomas.

Illustration is Carl Bloch's "The Doubting Thomas". 1881. Ugerlose Kirke, Denmark.

On Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page this week. The disciples tell Thomas it's time to move on. Click on the link below.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Blood and Wine

Nikolai Ge (1831-1894; sometimes Ghe or Gay) was a Russian painter influenced by the writings of Leo Tolstoy. His final series of paintings were of Christ's Passion. This painting, "Calvary" (also called "Golgotha" and/or "Crucifixion") is the final painting in the series. This final painting highlights the emotional and physical toll on Christ at the crucifixion.
Nikolai Ge. Calvary. c. 1892. Paris: Musee d'Orsay.
Christ's body sags on the cross, his knees almost below the ankles that are nailed to the vertical piece of the cross to support his weight. His head is below his hands, nailed to the horizontal element of the tau-shaped cross. This is not Christ triumphant, merely standing on a cross with his arms outstretched. This is Jesus who suffers.

The Agony
by George Herbert (1593-1633)

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.