Sunday, November 11, 2018

I Samuel 1 and 2: Hannah Did You Know?

The similarities between Hannah's song (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) are well-documented and analyzed. Both songs are spoken after the promise of the birth of a boy child. Both have themes of the coming of God's reign, turning this world upside down: the poor are raised up and the lowly are exalted. God is fully in control through the one who was chosen and anointed by God.

What is quite different about these two women's stories is "the other woman." Both Hannah and Mary, in the context of their pregnancy experiences, encountered another woman. These "other" women offered quite contrasting responses to Hannah and Mary.

Hannah must deal with Peninnah, also wife to Elkanah. Peninnah has children where Hannah has none. Peninnah's practice is to provoke Hannah, taunting her about her lack of children. Though Elkanah professes to love Hannah best, she is still subject to the stinging words of the other woman. In the manuscript illumination below, Elkanah, Hannah, Peninnah, and her children are on the road back home from Jerusalem.

The journey home is one scene on a page devoted to the story of Hannah. In the top left Elkanah has made his sacrifice and distributes portions to Peninnah and her children as well as to Hannah. Though Hannah may receive a double portion, the greater amount goes to Peninnah who receives portions for herself and her children. In the upper right we see Hannah weeping in the temple, where Eli believes she is drunk. In the lower right is the miracle: the birth of Samuel.

In the lower left panel, Elkanah, his two wives and his children all seem to be on the road home. Elkanah has a raised finger as if he is chastising Peninnah for her taunting of Hannah. Peninnah's children appear to be eating bread as they walk.

(Left) Hannah's Grief; Hannah's Prayer; The Road Home; Samuel. The Morgan Picture Bible (MS M.638, folio 19v). Paris, France. 1240s. Morgan Library, New York. (Right) Visitation. Book of Hours of MarĂ©chal de Boucicaut. 1405-08. Manuscript (Ms. 2) Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris, France.

What a trial life must have been to Hannah before the birth of Samuel. Hannah, of course, longs for a child and has been unable to have one, a circumstance that Elizabeth would fully understand. Mary is unmarried (though betrothed) and finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Fortunately Mary's experience visiting her relative Elizabeth is entirely different from Hannah's difficulties. 

From the moment Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, she is greeted as one who has been blessed by God. Elizabeth acknowledges that "blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth understands that Mary will be "the mother of [her] Lord." There is affection and respect and support between the two women.

Hannah, too, has received a promise of sorts. Eli asks that God fulfill her petition - which does happen. Presumably Peninnah's comments either stop or cease to hurt Hannah. Her son is not with her daily, but she has fulfilled the promise she made to give her son to God. As Mary's story unfolds, she, too, will give up her son. And that is when her own soul will be pierced by sorrow.

For thoughts relating I Samuel 2:1-10 and Mark 13:1-8, click here.
For how Psalm 113 relates to the story of Hannah, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Ruth 3 and 4: Grandmother

The story of Ruth and Naomi culminates with Ruth's marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17) and the birth of Obed. Obed's son will be Jesse. Jesse's son will be David. And Ruth and Boaz will be forever remembered as the grandparents of Israel's greatest king. But the grandmother who may be happiest is Naomi, whose biological relationship to Obed may be fairly distant.

Remember that Ruth is Naomi's daughter-in-law - no biological relationship - though the two women have chosen to make a family as mother and daughter. Boaz is related to Naomi in some way, though scripture doesn't specify what that is. He is identified by Naomi only as "our kinsman."

And yet the women said, "A son has been born to Naomi." A son. To Naomi. It has to do with lines of descent and family trees, of course, and it's wonderful that Ruth has given the gift of (grand)motherhood to Naomi.
Michelangelo Buonarotti. Salmon, Booz, Obeth. Sistine Chapel ceiling. 1508-1512. Vatican City.
Michelangelo included this part of David's (and Jesus') family tree in the lunettes of the Sistine Chapel. The lunette on the south wall contains the names of Salmon, Boaz, and Obed (though Michelangelo records the versions Booz and Obeth). To the left of the name plaque a woman holds close her swaddled child. A breast protrudes through her garment, indicating that she has recently nursed the child. This could be Ruth or Naomi (Ruth 4:16). Either way, this figure group is a very tender one, strangely juxtaposed with the old man who seems to face a carved image of himself.* 

It's a beautiful thing, this making of families of the heart. It will happen again at the foot of the cross. Jesus says to Mary, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And a(nother) son has been given to Mary.

*The figure on the right has, sometimes, been identified as Boaz, but evidence to support that claim is weak. If not Boaz, though, the figure is difficult to identify.

What about the widow in Mark 8:38-44? Take a look at where she might have dropped her offering on this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

All Saints Day: On the Way to Holiness

Oh, Lord, we want to be in that number! When the saints go marching in, of course. And we are, at least symbolically, every time we walk into a church. The aisle(s) of a church offer us a way to think about the life of faith. Are we getting closer to our goal? Are we farther away? Of course, most of us are in the same place, the same pew, week after week, which might say something, too.

The church of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, is a basilica plan church (the footprint is a rectangle with a half-circle apse at the end opposite the door). The side walls (connecting the door wall and the apse wall) are covered with mosaic figures in procession toward the altar. On the left side the 22 female martyrs process from a representation of the city of Classe toward a group that includes Mary with the Christ Child on her lap and flanked by four angels. Their procession is led by the magi, identified by name as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. To the right is a procession of 26 male martyrs in a composition that echoes the opposite procession. These martyrs are led by Saint Martin as they move from the Palace of Theodoric toward a figure group that includes Christ seated on a throne again flanked by four angels.

(Top) South wall mosaics of male martyrs. (Bottom) North wall mosaic of female martyrs. Consecrated 6th century. 

The martyrs clothed in white and carrying their wreaths and palms may seem beyond our reach. Their exemplary lives of service and sacrifice and ultimate sanctification may seem unattainable. But these two mosaic processions do more than dishearten those of us living in this world. They also demonstrate for worshipers the idea of entering the building and, throughout life, moving toward the holy.

In the Reformed tradition, All Saints Day reminds us of God's work of sanctifying not just spiritual superstars but the whole people of God. We give thanks for the lives of believers whose lives were both ordinary and holy in this age and in every age. We give glory to God as we remember members of the community of faith who have died in the past year. And yes, we pray that we will be in that number when the saints go marching in.

For additional thoughts on All Saints, click here.
If you aren't focusing on All Saints this Sunday, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post about Ruth and Naomi.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Job 42.1-6, 10-17: Daughters

It is a truth universally acknowledged that throughout history, it was often better to be a son than a daughter. And better to be a first-born son than a second (or third!) son. The eldest son sometimes got everything, but more often than not, he received at least more than any other son. Daughters may have inherited their mother's jewelry and perhaps the family china or silver (unless the silver was monogrammed, which meant the oldest son's family would probably get it). It's interesting, then, that the writer of Job is careful to record that when his fortunes were restored, Job gave his three daughters an inheritance along with their brothers (Job 42:15).
William Blake. Job and His Daughters. 1799/1800. Pen and tempera on canvas. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
This is not the first time that daughters have inherited. Just before the Israelites cross into the Promised Land, Zelophehad's offspring bring a case before Moses who takes it to God. These offspring, five daughters, are protesting the practice of only letting sons inherit. Their request is that they be allowed to inherit portions of their father's estate along with their uncles. They argue that their father's name should not be lost to his tribe just because there are no male heirs.

God agreed. 7The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.’ (Numbers 27:7-11)

Zelophehad's daughters - Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah - are allowed to inherit in the absence of male heirs. But notice that Job's three daughters - Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-happuch - inherit alongside their brothers. Job's restored fortunes also mean a restored "flock of children." Job has seven sons to go along with his three daughters. In a reversal of usual practice, here the daughters are named while the sons remain just "seven sons." For these daughters the end of Job's story wasn't  restoration but a whole new array of possibilities for life.

For thoughts on the healing of Bartimaeus, click here.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Mark 10.35-45: Prepared for Whom?

It is for those for whom it has been prepared. That's what Jesus tells James and John when they ask to sit beside him in glory. To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. But it begs the question: For whom has it been prepared? 

In art, Jesus in glory seems to be most-often surrounded by a host of angels or by symbols of the four gospels (and remember their relationship to Ezekiel's creatures and the creatures in Revelation). Annibale Caracci's "Christ in Glory" (below left) has Peter on Jesus' right and John on Jesus' left. At least one of the brothers made it in that version. A search for "Jesus in Glory" or "Christ in Glory" often shows the Transfiguration - where Elijah and Moses flank Jesus. No disciple emerges as a favorite in those depictions.

Another thought process says that if Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, then God would be sitting on Jesus' left. The best candidate for whom would be on Jesus' right is his mother Mary, often depicted as the queen of Heaven. The rightful place for a queen is at the king's right hand. In the thirteenth-century mosaic shown here, Jesus is enthroned, with Mary standing at Jesus' right hand and St. Mark is at his left hand. The mosaic is located on the main portal of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. Again, James and John miss out. 
(Left) Annibale Carracci. Christ in Glory. 1597-1598. Florence, Italy: Palazzo Pitti. (Right) Main portal mosaic. c. 1250. Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Italy. 
There is, of course, a time in scripture where two people are given places on either side of Jesus. And though James and John promised that they could drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism, they probably didn't have this in mind. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. At least on the day of crucifixion they were the ones on Jesus' left and right. Is that something like the last being first?

For thoughts on Job 38, click here
For additional thoughts on the disciples' request for greatness, see this week's Facebook post. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Visibly Repaired

[Note: This is not lectionary-related, just thoughts about art and life through eyes of faith.]

If something is broken, it's broken. You can ignore it. But it's still broken. Perhaps in its broken state it is still valuable - monetarily or in its function or sentimentally. Perhaps it could be of value again if it were repaired. It may be the case that there is no value in fixing it, so it is best thrown away.

If you decide to keep this broken thing and repair it, you will need to decide to what extent it should be repaired. The appraisers on "Antiques Roadshow" make statements about this all the time. How much owners should invest in repairing and/or restoring their treasures. How much the value (monetary) of the object might increase if it is repaired or restored. How much would be too much to spend on repairing or restoring the object. It will be up to the owner to decide about the degree of restoration the object will see.

Kintsugi is a repair process in Japanese ceramic practice. Broken items are repaired with lacquer, and then the lacquer is brushed with gold powder. Far from blending in so as to be invisible, kintsugi incorporates the brokenness into the design of the vessel. The process accepts the brokenness as part of the history of the object. It's even possible that people would actually break whole things so that they could be repaired. What a remarkable thing that its beauty made the repair desirable.
Tea Bowl, White Satsuma ware. 17th century. Freer-Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC. 

With care and attention, broken things - people, relationships, nations - can be repaired. But let's not try to repair so that we can pretend the break never happened. Let's acknowledge the brokenness and then give our best efforts to make the repairs beautiful.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Job 1.1, 2.1-10: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

It's interesting to think about what is going on the world right now that will come to pass in the future. Seeds are being planted that will become next spring's flowers. People I don't yet know are moving through their lives on a path that will cross with mine next year...or five years from now. My next job is being readied for me...or maybe things are being orchestrated so that I will stay in my current position for the rest of my work life. You just never know what things are happening out of sight. Job will find that out (Job 1:1, 2:1-10).

Bartolo di Fredi was, in the second half of the fourteenth century, the most important painter in Siena, Italy. He had a large working studio and was a registered member of his town's Guild. He assisted with the commission to paint the Council Hall in Siena in 1361. Earlier, beginning in 1356, he had been commissioned to decorate the Collegiata (principal church) of San Gimignano - about 20 miles from Siena. The frescoes along the entire left aisle are his work. Given the descriptive title Scenes from the Old Testament, the work was signed and finished in 1367.

Two of those scenes illustrate episodes from the story of Job. This is one of them.
Bartolo di Fredi. God Gives Satan Permission to Tempt Job. 1367. Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Italy. 
In this scene, Job and Mrs. Job (both wearing crowns), along with some of the little Jobs are feasting and making merry. They sit at a table with gold cups and linen tablecloths. Musicians blast herald trumpets, play the bongos (or something like them), and touch the keys of a portative organ. Dogs look for the crumbs that fall from the master's table. Bread is distributed from the door of Job's house at the left of the composition. Three figures (servants? children? townspeople?) gaze down from the top of the composition at the wondrous feast and celebration happening in Job's house. Life is good for Job. He is living like a king and helping others, too.

In silent movies, when the action cuts from one scene or location to another, an intertitle would appear on-screen, giving the audience the information they needed. In westerns, one of the intertitles that often appeared was, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." While one character was living life, having adventures away from the ranch, things were still happening back on the ranch. Those things would often influence the main character's life and destiny. He or she would have to come back home to save the ranch from the swindlers or find the rustlers or rescue the one true love from a dastardly interloper.

Job is feasting and listening to music and enjoying family time. But meanwhile, up in heaven (or the upper left corner of Bartolo's fresco), God and the satan are having a conversation that will greatly impact Job's future.

People often say, "If I had known this was coming..." Imagine the traveler heading out of town, boarding the plane, settling in at the hotel. All the while not know that the next day would bring a broken ankle and a hospital stay in that far-away city. If I had known...

Do you wish you knew what was going on "back at the ranch" that would impact your future? Or is it ok if you don't know?

For thoughts on Mark 10.2-16, click here.
Psalm 8 and Hebrews 3:7 are the subject of this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click here.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Esther 7, 9: Not Narrative

Uses of the book of Esther for artists:
  • Reason to paint beautiful woman or a pageant of beautiful women.
  • Reason to paint scenes in a harem.
  • Reason to paint a wild party with drunken guests.
Those are generally the categories of paintings of Esther. There are some post-Holocaust connections drawn between Haman and the Nazis. There are some paintings of Vashti sitting alone in her room after refusing to display herself at the wild party with drunken guests. 

The episodes of the story of Esther are rich inspiration for artists. Images of Esther serve as an inventory of what counted for beauty in every era, style and nation that saw artists painting Esther. Her indictment of Haman is often very dramatic: her arm is outstretched - ramrod straight - as she points directly to the man who seeks to eliminate her people. 

Esther megillot (megillah is derived from the word for scroll; megillot is the plural form) traditionally are put on one roller - at the left-hand side - rather than two. The megillah shown here was illustrated by Israeli artist Ya'akov Agam about 1980. Rather than the typical scenes of an exotic foreign court, the artist has illustrated the megillah with abstract designs. Despite the second commandment, there are megillot with figurative illustrations. Agam, however, is known for his colorful, geometric work. He has used his signature style here for the story of Esther. 
Ya'akov Agam. Esther Scroll. c. 1980. Screenprint and ink on parchment. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
What is lost - or gained - by this approach to the story? Do you miss the costumes and drama? Do you appreciate the clean lines and vibrant color? 

OK...a little bit of the Esther narrative is showcased on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.  

For thoughts on Mark 9:38-50, click here

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Proverbs 31. 10-31: She Can Bring Home the Bacon...

If you are from an old-enough generation, you may remember the tv commercial (I'm assuming it was just a USA commercial, but I don't know...) in which a woman sang, "I can bring home the bacon...fry it up in a pan..." The song was related to "I'm a Woman," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and sung by Peggy Lee. The song begins, "I can wash out forty four pairs of socks and have 'em hangin' out on the line..." The refrain is "'Cause I'm a woman...W-O-M-A-N! I'll say it again." The woman described in Proverbs 31 begins to take on some of that superwoman aura. She seems to do it all. Home, family, business. Everything she touches turns to gold.

Are all women supposed to be the woman described in Proverbs 31? Can all women be that woman? Can any woman be that woman? Have we turned this aspirational woman into an unrealistic expectation? Even the writer has a sense of that question, asking "A capable wife who can find?" (NRSV) "A good woman is hard to find..." (MSG) If women are required to have all these accomplishments, we might be inclined to echo Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet when she remarks to Mr. Darcy that she is no longer surprised at his knowing only six accomplished women and rather wonders that he knows any at all.

In response to a culture that advocated for the idea that women could do nothing, Christine de Pizan (sometimes Pisan) wrote a manuscript called The City of Ladies. Written in response to comments about women by writers and philosophers like Matheolus (who wrote in his Lamentations that women were among God's worst creations), The City of Ladies was an encyclopedia of women who countered the stereotypes of women that were being repeated and published. Christine's book honored women for their faith, for their loyalty, for their works, for their learning, and for their intellect.

Christine herself might have been included as more than the narrator of City of Ladies. Married young into an arranged marriage, Christine and her husband had a happy marriage. After her father's death, Christine and her husband Etienne took responsibility for Christine's family. When Etienne died ten years later, Christine became responsible for her three young children and her mother. Christine found patrons for her writing, successfully (and singlehandedly) supporting her family.
 [Christine de Pizan lecturing.] Master of the Cite des Dames and workshop and Master of the Duke of Bedford. The Book of the Queen. British Library. Harley 4431, f. 259v. c 1410-c 1414. The manuscript, known as 'The Book of the Queen', includes Works by Christine de Pizan, assembled for Isabel (Isabeau) of Bavaria, queen consort of Charles VI of France, and produced under the author's supervision. Possibly some passages are in the hand of Christine de Pizan herself. 

Those good women might not be as hard to find as we think.

For thoughts on Mark 9:30-37, click here.

This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post considers biography and photography in light of Proverbs 31.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Proverbs 1.20-33: Wisdom Cries Out

Most of us have probably had occasion to see a street-corner preacher. Speaking loudly and sometimes reaching out toward passers-by, street preachers proclaim the message they have received from scripture. They call people to repent. They tell of God's love. They offer the rewards of heaven and the punishments of hell.

Wisdom is one of those preachers (Proverbs 1:20-33), shouting the consequences that are coming to the people who have turned their backs on her. I tried to tell you, she cries. I reached out to you. But you did not respond. I tried. 

Wisdom is usually portrayed in relation to other virtues or vices. This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post takes a look at one painting's vision of that pairing in a classical setting. Wisdom is poised...usually. Wisdom is calm...usually. Wisdom is strong and good and attractive. She is sure and eternal. But what happens if we change how wisdom looks? What happens if wisdom is frantic in her efforts to reach the people? What happens if wisdom has reached the point of despair because the people just won't listen. Just. Won't. Listen.

In Edvard Munch's iconic work "The Scream" the air has turned to blood and the faces of his friends  became a garish yellow-white. A huge endless scream coursed through nature. I tried. I reached out. I tried. How does our perception of these verses change if the Wisdom who looks more like Munch's work and less like a poised, powerful classical goddess? 
Edvard Munch. The Scream. 1893. National Gallery of Oslo.

This week, Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page considers Wisdom at the crossroads
For thoughts on Mark 8:27-38, click here.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Mark 7.24-37: Not Jesus' Ephphatha

One word. Jesus says one word: Ephphatha. He says it while the man in front of him waiting as he has been waiting. Jesus has touched the man's ears and tongue because the man is deaf and has a impediment to his speech. And with just one word - ephphatha - Jesus changes his life (Mark 7:31-37).

If the healing is the best part, the waiting is the hardest part. Whoever this man was, though, and however long he had been waiting, he was not without people who cared about him. "They" brought him to Jesus and begged that Jesus would lay his hand on the man. And Jesus did.

In his telling of the story Mark records two things that lend a sense of accuracy and detail to what could have been just another story of healing (not that there is ever really "just another healing story").

The first is that Jesus sighs - deeply - before healing the man. The same word is translated groaned in other places (Romans 8:23). Jesus looks up to heaven, groans...sighs deeply...before speaking the one word.

Ephphatha. Here Mark quotes Jesus' Aramaic word and then provides the Greek translation: Open or Be opened. This is not the only place where Mark has preserved Jesus' words in their original Aramaic (Abba in the garden; Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? from the cross). The presence of these words brings us closer to Jesus' voice. It seems so simple. Open.

One of the plants on my patio is a night-blooming cereus, shown at left. Cuttings from the plant were shared several years ago by one of my sister's co-workers. For several weeks there have been two buds on the plant. The top photo is one of the buds from this year. In their earlier stages the buds look like stalks of asparagus. They have continued to grow: the stem has gotten longer and the bud has gotten bigger.

Because the plant blooms only at night (and the bloom lives only one night), I am diligently checking every evening for signs of an impending bloom and every morning to make sure I didn't miss the blooming. But so far...nothing. The flower photos at left are photos of last year's single bloom. One evening this week I even found myself standing on the patio saying, "Open, already!" Just one more way that I know I'm not Jesus and that my words are not Jesus' ephphatha.

Where the man's ears and mouth responded immediately to Jesus' command, this night-blooming cereus is not remotely interested in mine. Where this bloom will last only a night, Jesus' opening of the man's ears and mouth will last a lifetime. No wonder the people paid no heed to Jesus' instructions not to tell anyone.

For a map of exactly where Jesus is wandering in the gospel lesson (Mark 7:24-37), see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post.

For thoughts on Proverbs 22:1-23, click here.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Song of Solomon 2.8-13: Seasons Change

David Bowie says he can't trace time. But the singer of the Song of Solomon can. The winter is past. The rain is over and gone. The flowers are blooming. Turtledoves are calling to one another. Figs are on the tree (clearly there are no squirrels in this world) and the vines are blooming. It is time to sing. (Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

This reading seems oddly placed by the RCL as it is read in August when Spring is just a memory. Where I live, temperatures have averaged over 90 degrees since June. The birds may be singing, but we don't hear them as easily over the air conditioning.

The singer may be implying that when she and her lover are together, it is almost like Eden - when creation was good and as God intended: when things did not fade or die. In other words, an eternal Spring. But I'm not sure I agree that Spring is the only embodiment of God's vision for creation. Perhaps it's because I am in the autumn of my own life, but I find the changing leaves and the pops of yellow and orange and red in the trees is its own kind of "good."

Like the singer, painters note the changes of season by things that are new or new again: landscape colors, the state of natural elements like trees, the presence or absence of flowers and birds.. Here, Georgia O'Keeffe moves from Autumn (left), then Winter and, finally (right), the winter is past and Sprig has come. Colors change. Branches are covered and then exposed and then covered again.
All Georgia O'Keeffe. (Left) Autumn Trees - The Maple. 1924. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.  Winter Tree III. 1953. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. (Right) Spring. c. 1922. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. Poughkeepsie, NY.
Sometimes those changes are wrought by the forces of nature: changing temperatures, blowing winds, unblinking rays of the sun. At other times, though, the changes come from within - which may be why the developers of the RCL pair this text with Mark 7's exploration of inside and outside. It seems that always when Spring comes, there are a few (literal) hangers-on. Just a handful of leaves that are brown and brittle but have refused to let go of the branches on which they grew. They have survived rain and wind, perhaps even snow and ice. Ultimately, though, those brown and brittle leaves mostly fall, pushed from their branches not by external forces but by small, new green leaves that cannot be held back. Those small leaves do what the forces of nature could not. Jesus' statement is true: what is within a person is more powerful that what is outside a person.


For "two turtledoves", see this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.
For additional thoughts on Mark 7:1-23, click here.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

John 6.56-69: They No Longer Went About with Him

This teaching is difficult. So claim some of Jesus' followers in John 6:56-69. Do they mean difficult as in hard to understand? Or difficult as in it steps on my toes so I don't want to follow it? Or just exactly what?

Whatever it was, it was enough that it made people stop following Jesus. But the disciples remained true. Where else would we go? they asked Jesus. You have the words of eternal life. And the disciples continued following Jesus. Following on the road to eternal life.
American broadside printed by G.S. Peters in Harrisburg, PA. 1830s-1840s. 
But clearly there was another road they could have chosen: a road that led not to eternal life but to eternal damnation. And because those who stopped following (and their fiery, monstrous, deadly fate) are often perceived as a more interesting subject than those who stay the course, there is a clear artistic tradition growing from the choice. There are also overtones here of Matthew 7:14, where Jesus describes gates that are wide and ways that are broad. Many are on those ways, but those ways do not lead to eternal life. The way to eternal life is narrow and, at least in the American broadside here, rocky. 
Georgin, Francois. Three Roads to Eternity. 1825. Cornell University: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography
As Matthew's gospel indicates, the way away from God is broad and many are on that path. The variations rare similar, but each has not two but three paths. The non-scriptural path is the middle one, which looks like it is going to the new Jerusalem and, indeed, passes in view of the city, but then leads to damnation. The top version has the inscriptions and morals in English, while the center example is in French and the example at the bottomin German. 
G. S. Peters (Printer/Publisher). Die Wege zum ewigen Leben oder dem Ewigen Verderben
Das Neue Jerusalem [The Paths to Eternal Life or Eternal Damnation. The New Jerusalem], 
n.d. Broadside. Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Collection, Philadelphia, PA
As with many images that contrast heaven and hell, the artist seems to revel in the sufferings of those who follow the parade into hell. But when you read Jesus' words to the disciples what tone do you hear? Does Jesus seem to share the interest of the artists in ogling those who have chosen that broad way and no longer go about with him?

For thoughts on Solomon's temple prayer (I Kings 8), click here.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

John 6.51-58: Bread...Again

Have you ever noticed how many times scripture talks about bread? Art&Faith Matters has talked about it here and here and here and here. And just for good measure, there is manna here. There is lots of bread in scripture, and in John 6:51-58 a connecting line is drawn between bread and manna:  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate...
Master of the Gathering of the Manna. Gathering of the Manna from the Ashburnam Pentateuch
The picture above is exactly what it describes (and the designation/naming of the artist is drawn from this work). What is interesting, I think, is the manner in which people are gathering the manna. Some are picking up the wafer-shaped manna from the ground. Men, women, and children are all engaged in the task. Babies are held in their mother's arms, and people embrace as the miracle occurs. This is clearly a celebration. As it should be. For the coming decades the people will be fed daily with manna and quail.

But there are others who are not waiting for the manna to fall. They have baskets raised in order to collect the manna as soon as possible. Compositionally, it works. The figure at the top center is positioned directly beneath the hole in the sky from which the manna falls. A dark funnel-shaped shadow leads directly to the opening of the vessel being held aloft. The dark shadow also highlights the light-colored manna as it falls. Others in the crowd echo his practice and position.

Jesus identified himself as the living bread that came down from heaven. How do we receive that bread? Do we wait for the bread to fall to the ground before we pick it up? Do we think, "Bread (or manna)...again"? Or do we reach above our heads in order to snag that bread out of mid-air so that we can have it at the earliest possible moment? There's a difference.

For thoughts on Solomon's request for wisdom, click here.
For one tradition's use of bread, see Food&Faith Matters here.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

2 Samuel 18: A Recycled Story.

Absalom's fate is foreshadowed in I Samuel 18:8. The fighting is taking place in the forest of Ephraim. The narrator comments that the forest claimed more victims than the fighting. Sure enough, Absalom's hair is caught in the branches of a tree, allowing Joab and his soldiers to overtake him.

Like many biblical stories (including this one), Absalom has been appropriated for circumstances far beyond David's life in Israel. The embroidery below sets Absalom, Joab and David in pre-Revolutionary America.
Faith Robinson Trumbull (attrib.). The Hanging of Absalom. c. 1770. Silk and metal thread on black satin. 
New London, CT: Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
Rather than being the caring-then-distraught father, David (symbolizing King George III) is here the unseeing king, sitting in his palace playing his harp with no regard for what the people outside the palace (in the colonies) are suffering. Absalom is in the middle of the composition, indeed caught by his hair, his feet off the ground. Joab, David's commander in the scripture story, is wearing the uniform of a British redcoat. Absalom is the patriot, rebelling against an unfeeling monarch. 

The piece is believed to have been created soon after the Boston Massacre. On March 5, 1770, a British soldier was attacked by a mob in Boston. What started as a street altercation ended with the death of five American colonists at the hands of British soldiers. The creator of the piece - or at least the one to whom it is attributed is Faith Robinson Trumbull, wife of Jonathan Trumbull (Colonial Governor of CT) and mother of artist John Trumbull. 
The images of Absalom hanging from a tree can be disturbing, especially in light of the racial terrorist practice of lynching. This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook: a link to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

2 Samuel 11.26 - 12.13: David Has Slain...Two

"Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands." So sang the women as they danced and celebrated David (1 Samuel 18:7). A Renaissance manuscript and this reading from Hebrew scripture (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a) help us focus on two of the tens of thousands. One is David's most famous instance of killing. The other his most infamous.

It is David's orchestration of Uriah's death that sets in motion the events in the text, which begins with the announcement of his death to David and then to Uriah's wife Bathsheba. She mourns for him, but when the mourning is done, David brings her into the palace as his wife. And Uriah is seemingly forgotten.

Clovio has chosen to imagine a moment after Uriah has been killed. Here he lies on the ground, nude, his horse, perhaps injured(?), beside him. The other soldiers have pulled back, leaving Uriah visible on the ground. David's plan has succeeded. Uriah is dead. David has slain this one.
Giulio Clovio. Farnese Hours (Folio 63v). 1546. NY: Morgan Library.
In the oval grisaille vignette below the central scene, David raises his sword to cut off the head of Goliath. The figure to the left of the central scene is David, wearing a helmet and some kind of armor. In his right hand he holds the severed head of Goliath. To the right of the central scene is David, slightly draped, carrying the sling in his left hand. Three of the four sections of the page are of David's triumphal, almost salvific killing of Goliath. But the central scene is one showing a David who seems hardly a man after God's own heart. The David whose faith in God made the impossible possible seems completely gone.

Nathan seems to think so, too. He calls David to account. Not for the thousands but for the one. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, considering Bathsheba.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

2 Samuel 11.1-15: The Spring of the Year

They really do that? That was my response when I read my nephew's undergrad thesis. I had read 2 Samuel 11 before (Proper 12(17)/Pentecost +10), but the thesis confirmed it. It's right at the beginning of the text. In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle. They really do that. And Americans have in our historic conscious (at least if you were in school around the time I was) an episode that helps illuminate that opening sentence in Hebrew scripture.
Do you know the building in the photo above? Any idea what it is? How about the one below? Any clues?
Does this painting help? Probably.
William T. Trego. The March to Valley Forge. 1883. Philadelphia, PA: Museum of the American Revolution.
We usually refer to it as just "Valley Forge." The winter that George Washington spent at Valley Forge, the Continental Army was in what was called Winter Quarters. According to my favorite historians, it was traditional to stop fighting in late October because the weather got worse. Some soldiers wound up doing low level operations such as raids and foraging for supplies, but for the most part the armies dispersed into winter quarters. Washington led his troops into winter quarters on December 19, 1777. William Trego imagined the scene as you see it above. The winter would not improve.

Around mid-April, after the spring rains died down, armies would come back out to resume their fight. In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle...

Yes, they really do that. 

For thoughts on John 6:1-21, click here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mark 6.30-34, 53-56: Or a Dog

Mark's gospel shows us Jesus who has compassion for the people who need him. Jesus encourages the disciples to get away from work and rest for a little while and then he heals people in the crowd who have followed him from one side of the lake to the other (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Proper 11 (16)/Pentecost +8). Jesus has empathy for the people because he knows they are sheep without a shepherd. So he takes on the role of shepherd as he moves through the countryside, caring for those in his flock who are sick or injured.

That's what shepherds do. They care for their flock, providing for food and water, for rest, for health, for safety and security. Humans and animals have been the subject of painting since paleolithic artists drew on cave walls. Certainly shepherds and sheep are part of that tradition, from ancient Greece to modern art.

You might ask of these pictures where the shepherd is in relationship to the sheep. Does the shepherd lead from the front? Bring up the rear? Is the shepherd standing in the middle of the flock? Sitting nearby? No doubt an attentive shepherd would be in all those places depending on the task at hand, the time of year, or the current situation. A quick search online will show art that has the shepherd in all those poses.
Camille Pisarro. Shepherd and Sheep. 1888. Private Collection.
But Jesus' characterization of the people is missing something. He refers to them as sheep without a shepherd. But in many (most?) paintings of shepherds and sheep, the shepherd is assisted in his task by a dog. Search images of the annunciation to the shepherds. Many of those images will show the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night...with the help of a dog.

Herding dogs help shepherds with their work. Responding to commands they work in partnership with the shepherd to herd sheep, cattle...and even the children of their family. To see the amazing (and sometimes amusing) ability of herding dogs, click here. My favorite herder has always been the rough collie.
Jesus has compassion on the people because they don't have a shepherd...OR a dog.

For thoughts on 2 Samuel 7:1-14, click here.
To find out about a tear-inducing (you've been warned) tale of Jesus and a puppy, go to Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Mark 6.14-29: On a Platter

The story of the dance that led to John's execution is in Mark 6:14-29 [Proper 10 (15)B/Pentecost +8]. The plot is well-known and often used as a moral tale. Or rather immoral with regard to Herod's use of his daughter as entertainment for his drunken friends. We know that the upshot of the story is the request for John the Baptist's head on a platter.

Honestly, though, the embroidery of the story is probably more widely known than the actual text. Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome. Neither of those things is mentioned in scripture, but we associate both of them with this story. They are the backbone of Oscar Wilde's telling of the story in his play "Salome."

The play, written in 1896, was banned in England, so Wilde produced it in Paris. The play imagines that John has spurned Salome's affections, leading her to seek revenge. The Beardsley illustration below is titled "The Dancer's Reward." Here Salome has received the requested reward - the head of John the Baptist. It is delivered to her in Beardsley's drawing as demanded in Wilde's stage directions: "A huge black arm, the arm of the Executioner, comes forth from the cistern, bearing on a silver shield the head of Jokanaan (John)."

Beardsley's black and white line block print shows Salome's right hand holds John's hair, tilting up his face so she can see it. The head rests on a platter from which drips John's blood, as Salome draws the fingers of her left hand through it.
Aubrey Beardsley. The Dancer's Reward. 1894. Block Print. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
At the bottom right are a pair of slippers, presumably hers. It's hard to imagine that this is the holy ground that led Moses to take off his shoes.

For other thoughts on the beheading of John the Baptist, click here.
For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mark 6.1-13: Clean Feet, Dusty Feet

Jesus goes home in the gospel reading for Proper 9 (14)B/Pentecost+7B (Mark 6:1-13). Home...but it doesn't go well. Jesus then calls the disciples and sends them out with instructions for what they can do if they visit a town and things don't go well. The directions are clear: shake the dust from your feet.

Dusty feet - and making them un-dusty - is a subject that bubbles up in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Abraham offers water to the three visitors that they may wash the dust from their feet (Genesis 18:4). David instructs Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) to wash his feet when he returns home (2 Samuel 11:8). Several different stories relate when Jesus' feet were washed (Luke 7). And, of course, Jesus washes the disciples' feet (John 13).

The intention of those clean feet is the opposite of the instruction from Jesus in Mark 6. Washing the feet of guests is a sign of hospitality and welcome. What Jesus instructs the disciples to do is to not look back, to take nothing from the town that would not offer them welcome. They are to completely disassociate themselves - and by extension Jesus - with those places.

We are not provided with a list of places on the disciples' "dust-free" towns, but we can imagine that if Jesus' hometown didn't receive him well there would be places where his disciples would be unwelcome. Jesus' experience would give them a guide. Though Jesus didn't literally shake the dust from his sandals as he left Nazareth, he could do no "deeds of power" among them other than curing a few sick people. He took little to nothing of the townspeople with him, and he left way less of himself than he had hoped. As is always the case, Jesus went ahead as the pioneer and then spoke back to the disciples following him.

The painting here is actually an interpretation of the story of the travelers returning to Emmaus. The composition (both of the painting and the story) are not unlike the Mark 6 text: two travelers, the presence (if not the visible person) of Jesus, and a very dusty landscape. There appears to be a structure and an open door through which shines a light warmer in tone than the landscape. It is, perhaps, a light of welcome for Jesus and these two who believe he is the One.
Janet Brooks-Gerloff. On the Way to Emmaus. 1992. Bienenberg Mennonite Study Center, Bienenberg, Switzerland.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27: Killed in Action

David takes time to lament. To grieve for the fallen Saul and his son (and David's friend) Jonathan [2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27, Proper 8 (13)/Pentecost 6B]. Though David is not yet king, the favor of the Lord has fallen on him. So he takes time to lament. To grieve for Saul, who in life tried to kill David more than once. (Think about that...David mourned for the man who was more than once his enemy because that man was part of God's plan.) David addresses Jonathan in his grief. David reminds hearers of the father-son relationship that bound Saul and Jonathan together. But the root of David's lament is grief. A grief that he feels personally and instructs the nation to share.

The news of Saul and Jonathan's death comes to David from the Amalekite who ended Saul's life. When his sons fall in battle, Saul realizes that the fight cannot be won. He falls on his sword but is still alive, so he asks a young Amalekite fighter to end it. The Amalekite does, removing Saul's crown and armlet and taking it to David. David puts the Amalekite fighter to death for killing God's anointed and then begins the lament that forms the reading for this week.

David's bodily reaction to the news that the king and his sons have been killed in battle is to tear his clothing and speak the lament. German artist Kathe Kollwitz offers a different physical reaction to such news. Her print "Killed in Action" shows the reaction of a woman surrounded by her children. She covers her whole head with her hands as if to shut out the news. The children who surround her are probably not even part of her consciousness.
Kathe Kollwitz. Killed in Action. 1920. Lithograph. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kollwitz knew this feeling firsthand. Her son Peter was a volunteer in the German Army. He was killed in Belgium in 1914. Her grandson, also named Peter, was killed in Russia in 1943.

Kollwitz used a similar pose in a sculptural piece she began after the death of fellow artist Ernst Barlach. Titled "Lamentation", the relief sculpture reflects her feelings of the loss of an artist she admired. The works of both Barlach and Kollwitz were categorized as "degenerate" by the Nazi government. Barlach died of heart failure after he was forced to resign from the art academies and was forbidden to work as a sculptor. In Kollwitz's work, the left hand covers the left side of the face while the right hand covers the mouth. We see part of the face, enough to know that even the visible  eye is closed as if to shut out the news.
Kathe Kollwitz. Lamentation: In Memory of Ernst Barlach. 1938/cast later. Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.
Perhaps David's more outward-moving physical reaction can be understood as a manifestation of his public role. He must lead the nation in mourning. Kollwitz speaks for herself in these two works, telling the world that the news of the death of family and friends is unspeakable, unseeable. It isn't just the mighty who are mourned when they fall.

For thoughts on the gospel reading (Mark 5.21-43), click here
For thoughts of other "mighty" things that fall, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. Click here.