Sunday, October 1, 2017

Paul Says 'Not This'

The Epistle reading for Proper 22(27)A/Pentecost 18A is a familiar section of Paul's letter to the Phiippians (3:4b-14): Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

It's a truth that saying 'yes' to one thing means saying 'no' to other things. If we say 'yes' to Paul's example, then (I regret to say) we must say no to emulating one in the pantheon of Roman gods. Paul's focus on the goal that is ahead renders us unable to follow the model of Janus, the two-faced god who looks forward and backward. While there are often equivalents in the Greek and Roman pantheons, the Greeks had no parallel for Janus.

Usually shown with two faces - with one he looks forward and with the other he looks back - Janus is the god of transitions and beginnings. January has a linguistic root with Janus, though the question of  whether the month is named for the god has not been definitively answered. Nevertheless, January, the first month of our year is at a moment of transition.

The presence of ceremonial gateways (jani) throughout Rome reinforced the opportunity to make favorable beginnings by walking through these janus gates. A shrine to Janus was located in the Roman forum. The two doors to the shrine were open when Rome was at war and closed when Rome was at peace.

Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello included a two-faced, Janus-type figure in one panel of the so-called Passion Pulpit in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The pulpit is covered with bronze relief images of the episodes of Christ's passion. In this panel Christ appears before Pilate. As Pilate sits on his raised throne, the servant offers him a bowl of water with which to wash his hands of Jesus. The figure may symbolize Pilate's inner conflict or perhaps it is a reminder that Pilate will not be able to separate past and future: his reputation in the future will, for Christians, be defined by his actions here. Jesus said it before - no one can serve two masters - but perhaps Pilate is trying to do just that.

Paul is having none of this. Forgetting what lies behind, Paul presses forward, his eyes only on the goal of the call of God in Christ Jesus. There is no room for Janus in Paul's faith.

Top image: Janus head on Roman Republic coin. 225-214 BCE. Gold. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. http://www.ikmk.at/object.php?lang=en&id=ID88317
Second from top: Bust of Janus. Vatican Museums. http://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en.html
Bottom two images: Donatello. Christ Before Pilate (full panel and detail of area in white circle). Relief sculpture from Passion Pulpit. 1460-1465. Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy. http://www.operamedicealaurenziana.org/restorations/1263-2

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 22(27)A, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page: a look at vineyards in Israel. Click on the link below.

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