Sunday, June 26, 2016

He Sent How Many?

The gospel reading for Proper 9/Ordinary 14 tells us of the seventy apostles that Jesus sent out in pairs to the villages Jesus was planning to visit (Luke 10:1-20). They are the advance party...the local arrangements committee, perhaps. They are sent with specific instructions about what they are to do, where they are to go, how they are to act. The seventy return to Jesus filled with wonder about the power that is available through the name of Jesus.

Seventy seems a fair number. Having seventy in the youth group or in the choir would be a rousing number indeed. Having seventy people on the visitation team or at the church clean-up day would surely provide the many hands that would make light(er) work. It seems a good number - not just in its relationship to other Biblical numbers (Moses had seventy elders who shared in his spirit and helped him govern) but also in itself. Seventy, after all, is six times more than Jesus' original disciples. Imagine a 600% increase in staff.

But we might think of the number in a larger context. The population of the city of Rome during the time of Augustus (he of the census in Luke's gospel) has been estimated at 1,250,000. 1.25 million. What does a million look like? The composition of the silkscreen print below is made of a million dots.
Michael Hegedus. One Million Dots. Silkscreen. 2011. http://hegedusart.com/portfolio-item/one-million-dots/

Add another 25% to these dots and you will have roughly the number of people in Rome at the time of Jesus. It's a lot of dots. They all seem to blend together, though by looking closely, we can see the individual dots. If this print conveys almost the population of Rome (never mind the population of the Mediterranean World), what does seventy look like by comparison?

Below is a detail of the large print. There are 70 dots. This detail is larger than the scale in the whole work above, but it is enough to give you an idea of the the overwhelming odds faced by this small, yes, small, collection of apostles...if their "mission field" were only Rome.
Their mission field was not just Rome; it wound up being the known world. The harvest did indeed appear plentiful, but this little group of 70 looks like a very few laborers. Nevertheless, they were sent and they returned, enthusiastic about the gospel. No matter how outnumbered they might have been.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fire. Sun. A Question of Time.

Elijah and his stylish vehicular departure would capture the imagination of just about anyone. Who wouldn't want to be carried away from earth in a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire? (2 Kings 2:1-14; Proper 8C/Ordinary 13C).

Russian artist Marc Chagall depicted the usual elements of the story in his 1971 mosaic now at the Musee Marc Chagall, Nice, France. The prophet rides in his fiery chariot, hands outstretched (or raised, perhaps). He centers the composition of this large, outdoor mosaic. Surrounding Elijah the artist has placed a circular arrangement of the signs of the zodiac. The internet says (so it must be true), that the signs of the zodiac are used to symbolize time.

Arranged as they are in the wheel of a year, the astrological signs seem to reinforce the cyclical nature of time, of the turning of the seasons and the changing of the year. Symbols of the zodiac are often found on the exterior of Gothic cathedrals, usually in association with the labors of the months.

It is not especially unusual to find the signs of the zodiac as decorations in synagogues from certain eras. Symbols for each of the twelve signs are arranged in a circle around a central figure. In the example below, from the Bet Alfa synagogue (5th century), Cancer is at the top of the circle, and each zodiacal sign is identified in Hebrew letters. Other examples are found at Tzippori and Hamat Tiberias. There doesn't seem to be a consistent arrangement for the signs, but in each of the synagogue examples, the central image is a figure in a horse-drawn chariot.

It is not, however, Chagall's prophet Elijah. Instead we see Helios, the personification of the sun in the Greek pantheon. Helios drives a horse-drawn chariot across the sky every day. With Helios as the central figure, the compositional idea of symbolizing time makes sense. Twelve signs of the zodiac encompass the year, and Helios covers the sun's journey through a day.What, though, has Elijah to contribute to an arrangement of the zodiac signs symbolizing time?

Both Elijah and Helios ride in chariots. Both chariots are pulled by horses. Both chariots and riders take their journey through the sky rather than on earth. The sun is made of fire. There are certainly similarities between the Helios and Elijah. Is that what gave rise to the substitution? Or do you think Chagall had another intention in replacing Helios with Elijah?

Syncretism is the fusion of different thoughts, cultures, religions into one. It sometimes happens like this, "Look! Your religion has a person riding in a chariot in the sky...so does ours! We're the same!" Or, more famously, "Look! You have the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (the Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invictus)...we have an unconquered Son, too! His birthday is also December 25!" What is gained...and what is lost...when surface similarities are used to create unity?

(Top) Marc Chagall, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot. Mosaic. Russian, 1970. Nice, Chagall Museum. For the Musee National Marc Chagall, see: http://en.nicetourisme.com/nice/183-musee-national-marc-chagall. (Bottom) Mosaic pavement (Zodiac and Helios). 6th century. Bet Alfa Synagogue, Jezreel Valley, Israel. For Beit Alfa Synagogue, see:  http://www.parks.org.il/parks/ParksAndReserves/BET%20ALFA/Pages/default.aspx

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Empty or Full

At the end of the I Kings reading, Elijah steps out of the cave where he is hiding and covers his head with his mantle. He does this after he has heard the sound of God - the sound of sheer silence (Proper 7C/Ordinary 12C). God was not in the earthquake. God was not in the storms that spun out of control. God was not in the earthquake. God was not in the fire. God was in the sound of sheer silence. Imagine it. In the sheer silence...Elijah knew God was present.

Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), a Romantic artist from Switzerland, painted a figure and called it Silence. The painting seems to be more of an opposite than an echo of the Biblical text. Fuseli's painting (below) shows a single figure sitting in the middle of dark and gloom.
 
Henri Fuseli. Silence. 1799-1801. Kunsthaus, Zurich
The figure, which might be perceived as female based on the long hair (remembering the date of the work), sits on the ground and waits. We do not see a face and get no real clues from the figure's clothing about the figure's meaning. The form of the figure is stark against the background. Silence's head is bowed. Arms are crossed with palms facing up. The legs, with knees drawn up, are crossed at the ankles. The torso of the figure is hunched over. How would you describe Silence as depicted in this figure? Is silence equated with melancholy? Or aloneness? Depression, maybe? Or sadness? Fuseli's silence seems to be empty.

In I Kings, Elijah discovers that in the sheer silence there is God. Not nothing, but everything.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jezebel

In the 1995 version of the film "Sabrina", Julia Ormond's Sabrina refers to Linus Larrabee's brother and says, "Nobody's as handsome as David. Not even David." The same might be true of Jezebel: Nobody's as Jezebel as Jezebel. Not even Jezebel. Some people are content to let the character retain the harlotry and brazenness that has been lacquered onto her character through centuries of interpretation. Others are rethinking and reanalyzing to see if that varnish is deserved. However you read her character, this woman is a mover and shaker in the Hebrew scripture readings for Proper 6C/Pentecost+11 (I Kings 21:1-21).

And she was of much interest to a group of English artists in the second half of the 19th century. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are heavy on detail, history, myth and symbol. There is a well-established type of "Pre-Raphaelite woman", and the women around this group of painters are worthy subjects of interest in their own right, finding places as wives, models, lovers, muses, artists and friends. It is not surprising that the PRB would find the character of Jezebel an interesting subject - as they did Guinevere, Francesca, Beatrice, the Virgin Mary and others.

Thomas Matthews Rooke painted several episodes from the story of Jezebel, creating from them a single composition. Framed episodically, almost like panels in a comic strip, the compositions are continuous narration of the story, under the large title of Ahab's Covetings. The episodes shown here in color are (top left) Jezebel promising the sulking Ahab that she has a plan for getting the vineyard he wants, (top right) Elijah announcing the punishment for Ahab and Jezebel as they stand by Naboth's dead body and (bottom left) Jezebel being thrown (literally) to the dogs and (bottom right) a full view of the work.

One of the unusual aspects of these images is that in each episode someone (or more than one someone) has turned their back to the viewer. Ahab turns toward the wall as he lies on his bed sulking. Jezebel turns her back to Elijah in Naboth's vineyard. And, finally (truly finally), Jezebel is pushed from the window with her back to us. Ahab's back is turned as he sulks over being thwarted in his plans for vegetable gardening. He has no respect for the law of inheritance when it comes to the land. He simply wants what he wants. Jezebel acts as would a ruler of Phoenicia (where she was brought up), simply organizing a way to get what the king wants. In doing so, she disregards the law of Israel and shows that she has no regard for Naboth's life or reputation. Ultimately, of course, the problem isn't whether we as the viewer see their faces or their backs. The problem is that Ahab and Jezebel turn their backs on Yahweh.

(Top) King Ahab's Coveting: Jezebel and Ahab. 1879. Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth, England. (Middle) Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel with Naboth (Bottom) Jezebel Thrown to Her Death by Two Eunuchs. 1879. Russell-Cotes Museum. Bournemouth, England. For Russell-Cotes, see: http://russellcotes.com/).