Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bugs at the Picnic

"Dinner on the Grounds" is one more way of saying "church picnic". Whether spreading food on a blanket on the ground or using boards placed across sawhorses, the idea is one of sharing food outdoors in congregational fellowship. It's an idea that Jesus embraced in the gospel reading for Pr12/OT17/P +8 (John 6:1-21). The crowd sat down and passed around fish and bread.

The artists who have interpreted this story usually show throngs of people in the landscape and somewhere in the crowd Jesus, several disciples and often the boy whose lunch was the foundation of the feast. The paintings usually don't show things that many of us would associate with an outdoor picnic - heat, humidity, rocks, hard ground, scratchy grass...and bugs. Aren't there always bugs at a picnic? Grasshoppers, ants, flies and other often unidentifiable creepy-crawlies.

Seventeenth-century still-life painter Georg Flegel took the John 6 picnic out of its narrative context - there are no people and no landscape - but still made it a religious painting by including...a bug.
Georg Flegel. Still Life with Stag Beetle. 1635. Oil on Basswood. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany. WRM 2824.

Specifically a stag beetle. That is the creature in the lower left corner marching toward the fish, huge mandibles leading the way. The stag beetle gets its name from those waving mandibles which resemble the antlers of a stag. And the stag has long been a symbol for...Christ. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (8.41) identified stags as the enemy of serpents, drawing them out of their holes and trampling on them; the parallel with Christ was then obvious. The stag beetle is gathered into the symbolism by it's association with the stag.

But, believe it or not, Christ is also associated with the beetle. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, referred to Jesus as the "good scarabeus" (Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity, Samuel Sharpe, London, 1863, p. 3). Scarabs are amulets carved or modeled in the shape of the beetle (usually identified as Scarabaeus sacer), which was sacred in ancient Egypt. In the Septuagint, Habbakuk 2:1 is translated: For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beetle out of the timber shall answer it. The meaning is disputed, but Ambrose, Augustine and others adopted the "beetle" translation and associated the beetle with Christ.

Other German artists, including Albrecht Durer, arguably the most famous German painter of his day, used the symbol. There is a stag beetle teasing the dog in Durer's The Virgin among a Multitude of Animals (1503, Pen and ink and watercolor, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna). The artist also put a stag beetle on the step in the lower right corner of his 1504 Adoration of the Magi.
Albrecht Durer. Adoration of the Magi. 1504. Oil on wood. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Flegel includes onions and wine in his still life, but it is the inclusion of the stag beetle that would have led a contemporary viewer to see this as a religious painting. The meal is fish and bread, and the host is Jesus Christ, just as the gospel of John told the story. It's the bug at the picnic that tells the story. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

What Kind of House?

I'll make you a house. No, I'll make you a house. No, I'll make YOU a house. That's the gist of the conversation between God and David in the reading from Hebrew scripture (2 Samuel 7:1-16, Proper 11B/Ordinary 16B/Pentecost 8). Ultimately it is David's descendant who will build a temple for God and the people, and it is David whose descendants will be made into a house.

The desire for a house, a real brick-and-mortar house is a human thing. The human need for the concrete is probably one reason for the incarnation. Jesus is God who becomes flesh and tabernacles among us. All well and good for Jesus, a descendant of David, but David really wanted God to have something more permanent than a tabernacle. David wanted God to have a house at least as impressive as David's own.

There is a fractured version of an old saying that says "People who live in glass houses shouldn't stow thrones." It's true. That was going to be a concern for David - stowing a throne, that is. The throne promised to his "house". The Lord promised David a house, though not exactly the kind he originally envisioned, and David will learn to be OK with that. It's almost as if he knew Psalm 127:1: "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain."

David's wasn't a glass house, but care is required for any kind of house, maybe especially the kind of house made of fragile, fallible human beings. And who should we trust more than God to build fragile, fallible beings into a house?
Tony Cragg. Clear Glass Stack. 1999. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamacki, Auckland, New Zealand. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Except Everyone is Watching

David sounds graceful in the lectionary reading for Proper 10B/Ordinary 15B/Pentecost 7 (2 Samuel 6:1-19). He dances before the Lord with all his might. But a quick image search of "David dance ark" reveals that there might have been a whole lotta awkward going on.
 These Davids are no Misty Copeland.
But I suspect that both David and Misty Copeland understand what dance legend Martha Graham is credited with saying, "Great dancers aren't great because of their technique. They are great because of their passion." That certainly does not downplay the tremendous dedication to study and technique required of Copeland and all professional dancers. Instead it understands that technique is not enough. There must be passion, determination, drive, desire. It is in the additional ingredients that lies the difference between stellar technique and the ability to soar.

Motivational posters tell us to "Dance like no one is watching". But everyone was watching David, and someone is watching us. That someone is God. Who understands that Misty Copeland helps us experience things that we cannot do for ourselves. God does not expect each of us to dance like Misty Copeland (thank goodness!), but God does want us to dance in whatever awkward way we might dance. We might be better helped this week by abstract images and images implying movement that might cover up those awkward stop-action moments for many of us.

Photography Shinichi Maruyama created time-lapse photographs of dancers that captures the movement, and perhaps a bit of how it feels to dance, remembering that it only matters that God is watching. So dance with all your might before the Lord.
For additional images in this series, see: http://www.shinichimaruyama.com/







A thought-provoking change of setting for the story of David's dance. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below to see what this is.