Monday, September 26, 2016

We Hung Up Our Lyres

How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? That is the question the psalmist asks (or sings) in the lectionary psalm (Psalm 137) for Proper 22C/Ordinary 27C. The original setting was, of course, the exile in Babylon, which is mentioned in the psalm.

Israeli illustrator Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) used this text several times in his career. One illustration, a print depicts a German Art Nouveau interpretation of a realistic setting by the rivers of Babylon. Figures sit dejectedly, their lyres lying silently in their hands or by their side. In the background are trees whose branches are "decorated" with hanging lyres.
Ephraim Moshe Lilien. On the Rivers of Babylon (Plate 43). Etching and aquatint. 1910. 
Lilien's second example also uses trees and lyres, though there are no visible figures. The psalm is the source for the book cover illustration of "Lieder des Ghetto" ("Songs of the Ghetto"), a collection of songs by Morris Rosenfeld, the so-called "Poet Laureate of Labor." Though the collection was originally published in 1898, Lilien's illustrations were part of the 1920 edition in which the Yiddish originals were translated into German.  
Ephraim Moshe Lilien. Cover illustration for "Lieder des Ghetto." 1920. Poems by Morris Rosenfeld; translated by Berthold Feiwel. Berlin: Marquardt u. Co.
On the cover of the book is the willow tree on which hangs a lyre. The lyre's strings are broken, rendering the instrument unplayable. The background has a light cityscape at the bottom of the cover and rounds of thorns or barbed wire at the bottom of the willow trunk.

Babylon is not the only "strange land" in which God's people have found themselves...and found themselves wondering how to sing the songs of Yahweh. Even today there are all too many situations when we wonder about singing God's song in the strange lands in which we find ourselves. Perhaps those are the times we most need to sing.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Rock-a My Soul

There was a rich man. So begins the gospel reading for Proper 21C/Ordinary 26C (Luke 16:19-31). By the end of the text, though, being rich isn't going to help anything. Instead, it is a poor man named Lazarus, who probably knew little or no peace in his earthly life, who will find peace at the last. He will find peace because at his death he is carried away by the angels to be with...Abraham.

Yes, Abraham. We might know the concept as the "bosom of Abraham" (ohhhhh, rock-a my soul). The translation might be a bit misleading to our ears. The Greek term is kolpos, and it refers to the side or lap of a person. At the last supper, the beloved disciple reclines en to kolpo tou Iesou (in the bosom of Jesus...John 13:23). This place of repose was an honor and a favor.

The idea of Abraham welcoming the faithful who died is found in 4 Maccabees 13:17: For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us. (NRSV) The place to which the dead were welcomed was Gehenna (from the Hebrew Gehinnom, literally the valley of Hinnom), traditionally considered a place of punishment for the ungodly because of pagan practices in the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In scripture, the word for the place of punishment is Sheol, so Gehenna might be better characterized as a place of judgment. For those who had nothing judged against them, there was no punishment. So the bosom of Abraham was a place of happiness, though not perhaps perfect happiness. In the parable it is conceivable that Lazarus and the rich man are in the same general place. In the place where one goes after death, Lazarus finds rest, but the rich man is judged (and punished) for his earthly life.
Paradise with Jesus on the lap of Abraham. German. c. 1239. Tempera and gold leaf on vellum. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Over time, the bosom of Abraham became synonymous with Heaven itself. In the picture above, it is the infant Jesus who sits on the lap (in the bosom) of Abraham and both child and patriarch find themselves in Paradise. Clusters of dates are so plentiful that the branch bends down with the weight. Water comes from the four corners of the illustration. Paradise, indeed. It may be that the equating of Abraham's bosom with Paradise is seen in Matthew 8:11: I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. And some hear the promise of being in Abraham's bosom in Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross: you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).

Sunday, September 11, 2016


You cannot serve God and wealth. That's how the gospel reading for Proper 20C/Ordinary 25C (Luke 16:1-13) concludes in the NRSV. The KJV has another word at the end: mammon. We might infer what (or who) that is, but medieval Christians did not need to infer. Mammon was written about, painted and otherwise brought to life to show exactly how opposite and how unsuitable for worship was mammon.

The word itself is probably Aramaic, related to the Hebrew term 'aman (to trust). The figure of Mammon was described with almost gleeful disgust by Edmund Spenser in Book 2 of The Faerie Queene (his cave is near the mouth of the underworld...that's pretty clear). Mammon is a devil living in Hell in John Milton's Paradise Lost.
(Left) Evelyn de Morgan. The Worship of Mammon. 1909. Compton, Guildford, Surrey, England: The DeMorgan Foundation. (Right) George Frederick Watts. Mammon. 1884-1885. London: Tate Gallery. .
The figure of Mammon, above, is one of two figures in the painting. Against a deepening blue sky, a woman grasps the knee of the figure of Mammon, gazing up in adoration. Mammon holds a bag presumably filled with money, in his right hand, but the woman doesn't even spare a glance at the bag. She doesn't appear to be worshiping money as much as worshiping Mammon himself. Or perhaps it is that Mammon holds the bag out of reach of the woman and she never realizes that happiness (satisfaction?) is always out of reach if Mammon is the object of worship.

Watts' Mammon bears at least a passing resemblance to Jabba the Hutt. He sits on his throne with a nude young woman to his right and a young man under his feet. His throne, upholstered in red features two skulls as finials. His crown features gold coins and donkey ears, references to Midas in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Most know Midas from his "touch" that turned everything, including his daughter, into gold. Through Ovid's pen, we hear that Apollo gave Midas the donkey ears as a symbol of his stupidity because he preferred the music of Pan's pipes to Apollo's lyre.

You cannot serve God and Mammon, Jesus said. Neither of these two figures is appealing enough to make the thought of serving Mammon tempting.