Sunday, December 30, 2018

Matthew 2.1-12: Look! Up in the Sky!

The story of Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) is, in one sense, about a quest...to follow a star...no matter how hopeless...no matter how far.* That star that guided the magi has long been the subject of speculation and investigation by scientists and theologians and poets and dreamers. The months of December 2018 and January 2019 have seen (or will see) several astronomical events. On December 22, the night after the 2018 winter solstice, a full moon (the "Cold Moon") lit up the sky. On the morning of December 21, Mercury and Jupiter rose together. The peak of the Ursids meteor showers occurred during the same several days.

On January 20-21, 2019, skywatchers in the Americas, Greenland, Iceland, western Europe and western Africa will see a Super Blood Wolf Moon eclipse. This will be the last total lunar eclipse until May 26, 2021. The full moon is called a supermoon as it will appear bigger and brighter in the sky. As the shadow of the earth moves between the sun and the moon, earth's shadow will cover the moon, the sun's light will bend toward the moon, turning it blood red. It is called a Wolf Moon because it is the first full moon in January.
Giotto di Bondone. Adoration of the Magi. 1303. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. 
In 1303 Giotto di Bondone covered the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel with two fresco cycles. One  tells the life of Jesus; the other, the life of Mary. Giotto's composition for the Adoration of the Magi includes the Bible's Star of Bethlehem but portrays it as a comet...with a tail as big as a kite. Halley's Comet had been visible in the sky during November and December of 1301. The artist was no doubt influenced, even inspired, by the heavenly activity, even two years later when he began the Scrovegni frescoes. The comet streaks across the sky leading the eye of the viewer to a point directly over the place where Jesus is. Just like in the Bible story.

The European Space Agency returned the favor when they launched a space probe whose mission was to study the nucleus of Halley's Comet. Launched in July 1985 and coming within 370 miles of the nucleus in March 1986, the probe was named Giotto. Giotto's on-board color camera took photos of the comet.

The Psalmist (Psalm 19) reminds us that the heavens are telling the glory of God:
God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening.
Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.
God makes a huge dome for the sun—a superdome!
The morning sun’s a new husband leaping from his honeymoon bed,
The daybreaking sun an athlete racing to the tape.
That’s how God’s Word vaults across the skies from sunrise to sunset,
Melting ice, scorching deserts, warming hearts to faith. (The Message)


The magi were used to looking at the sky. Because of that they were among the first recorded to show to the world who Jesus was. Perhaps we should be looking up more than we do.

*Lyrics from "The Impossible Dream" from Man of LaMancha. Lyrics by Joe Darion.

For additional thoughts on Isaiah 60:1-6, click here.
For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:1-12, click here and here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...an eclipse to accompany the comet in the life of Jesus. The heavens are telling.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Luke 2.41-52: The People in Church

English artist William Holman Hunt painted "The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple" as part of his effort to revitalize Biblical subjects in art. He traveled to Jerusalem, used local people as models, and attempted to inject symbolism into every choice he made when painting Biblical subjects. From the story of Jesus at age twelve (Luke 2:41-52), Hunt has chosen to paint the moment when anxious parents Mary and Joseph are standing at Jesus' side. The artist has not focused on Jesus' discussion with the rabbis, but the rabbis' presence at the left of the canvas witnesses to the discussion that happened before parents and child were reunited.

Hunt's painting interprets this story as an exploration of how the old meets the new. On the frame, the left side's brazen serpent (Moses in the wilderness) is balanced with a cross (the new means of "healing"). At the top center the rising sun (Christ) eclipses the light of the moon (the Torah). In the painting itself, outside the room where the conversation is happening, workers are completing the physical building of the temple and a blind man sits on the steps. Meanwhile, on the gold plate behind the head of Jesus is an inscription in Latin and Hebrew: And the LORD, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple (Malachi 3:1).

Seven rabbis sit in the covered porch surrounded by their aides and attendants, including a group of musicians. The group of religious officials wraps around behind the three members of the Holy Family. Though the group visually moves behind Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the family is not really embraced by them. The rabbis in the lower left represent different responses to Jesus. The rabbi closest to us has his right arm wrapped around the Torah. His eyes appear sightless, so he literally cannot see what is before him and instead blindly clings to what he has known. Next to him (to the right of the rabbi for the viewer) sits a second rabbi holding a phylactery box (containing parchment scrolls on which are written verses of the Torah). This rabbi has turned his face, looking toward the blind rabbi and away from Jesus. He has chosen not to see Jesus but instead pats the hand of the (seemingly) older man as if to reassure him. The upper body of the third rabbi leans forward toward Jesus in a more aggressive position. We can imagine that he is the one who has been debating with Jesus and has only stopped the debate because of the arrival of Mary and Joseph. The fourth rabbi leans back, away from Jesus as if stepping back - disengaging - in order to judge. He wears a broad phylactery (remember Jesus' comment on broad phylacteries in Matthew 23:5) on his forehead, so that others may see his piety at all times. A fifth rabbi sits comfortably on his cushion, a bowl of something in his left hand, raised halfway to his mouth. A sixth rabbi leans around as if trying to see what Mary is saying to Jesus. The seventh rabbi sits almost Buddha-like, solid, comfortable and seemingly unmoving.

One of the men cannot see Jesus because he continues to cling to what he knows. Another is busy consoling the blind one. A third aggressively argues with Jesus. One sits back waiting, wanting to be seen as holy, several look satisfied with where and who they are and seem unwilling to take any action or any risk in order to respond to Jesus in a meaningful way.

It's too easy to make this about rabbis, though. If Jesus walked into your church building, what people would he meet? Those who cling to the culture they know rather than who Jesus is? People who are happy to hold on to religious things while reassuring others that nothing will change? Would Jesus find people who would argue with him about his teachings?  Would Jesus find people who are comfortable and satisfied with the status quo because it has benefited them, so they aren't interested in being stirred to actually do anything?

Twelve-year-old Jesus wasn't the kind of Messiah that the rabbis in the temple were expecting. And the artist himself drew parallels between these rabbis and clergy of his own day. But it isn't just about clergy. It's about all the people of God and how we respond when faced with Jesus, whatever his appearance.

Above: William Holman Hunt. The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. 1854-55. Birmingham (England) Museum and Art Gallery.

For additional thoughts on Luke 2:41-52, click here.
For further details on this painting, see this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Micah 5.2-5a: O Little Town of Antwerp

The prophet Micah points to Bethlehem as the place of origin of the one who will rule Israel (Micah 5:2-5a). When Micah is quoted in Matthew's gospel the description includes the clarification that though Bethlehem is small, it is "by no means least" among the tribes. By no means least, because from Bethlehem - the city of David - would come greatness. In fact, the path of God's saving plan will go right through Bethlehem. Which for Pieter Bruegel looks an awful lot like a 16th-century village in Flanders. The architecture, clothing, activities, and landscape transport us immediately to the artist's time.

The Census at Bethlehem shows a small town filled with people and activity in the middle of winter. People have returned to Bethlehem to be counted, and people who live in Bethlehem are going on about their daily lives. Firewood is being unloaded from a cart. A pig is being slaughtered. Children are skating on the frozen pond. Snowball fights are going on. People gather around an outdoor fire and stand in line outside a pub. In all the activity, you might miss the man with his carpenter's saw leading a donkey on which a woman in blue is riding.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Numbering at Bethlehem. Brussels: Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. 1566.
But that man and woman are the most important part of the picture. They are the means by which the salvation of the world will come from Bethlehem. And for Bruegel, the world that needs saving isn't just first-century Palestine. Bruegel includes details that echo the biblical story but are his contemporary experience. Though the painting refers to Luke's idea of a census or "numbering" bringing people to Bethlehem, there is in fact a tax collection going on at the window of the building on the left.
The collection of taxes by an occupying government was a familiar sight to Bruegel. At the time this picture was painted, Spain controlled the Netherlands. The Hapsburg kings who reigned in Spain levied heavy taxes not just on individuals but on the textile industry and on cities in the Netherlands in order to pay for Spain's ongoing wars. In Bruegel's painting the tax collector has hung out a sign with the double-headed eagle that was the emblem of the Hapsburg empire (detail above).

In addition to the contentious economic relationship between the Netherlands and Spain, there were also religious clashes between Roman Catholic Spain and an increasingly Protestant Netherlands. Philip II sent the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands to put down the religious rebellion. The Duke is said to have boasted that more than 18,000 Dutchmen died on the scaffold at his direction. Later estimates put the number of executions at 6,000. In a letter to his sister, Margaret of Parma, Philip II said that he would give up 100,000 lives (if he had them) to prevent the Protestant heresy from taking hold in the Netherlands (15 July 1562). In 1566 Bruegel painted a companion piece to the Numbering - Massacre of the Innocents - set in the same Flemish Bethlehem.

The Bethlehem of scripture was the same as Bruegel's village: no grand cosmopolitan place but a small town of ordinary people trying to live their ordinary lives while at the mercy of a government that controlled their lives. Nevertheless, the prophet assured Bethlehem that greatness was to come from her. And so it did. Do you live in Bethlehem?

For a poem that relates to this Bruegel painting, see this week's Art&Faith Matters post here.
For thoughts on Luke 1:39-45, click here.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Zephaniah 3.14-20: Reassembled

Sing, O Zion! Shout, O Israel! Rejoice, O Jerusalem! It's all good news from the prophet Zephaniah (3:14-20). God has removed all judgments, turned away the enemies, taken away disaster, gathered the lame and outcast, and dealt with all oppressors. Perfect. Everything is perfect, will be perfect. Just as it was before. The people have been restored to the land, and the land has been restored for the people. Their fortunes will be restored before their eyes.

But does it come back together exactly as it was before? I wonder sometimes if in reassembling, things don't fit in exactly the same way that they did before. God may be able to see people as justified and therefore no different than they had been before. But what happened to the people who were being gathered again because they had been "away from home"? Did they see things the same way as those who had been at home all along? Were they exactly the same people as they were when they left? Would they fit back in exactly as they had before?

In some ways, early Cubism was asking those same questions. Could you look at an object (or person) from multiple viewpoints and reassemble those views into one 2-dimensional work of art? In that early phase, sometimes gathered under the title of Analytical Cubism, artists dissected people and things, looking at them from above and below, from front and back, fragmenting the whole into individual glimpses. All of those glimpses were then put into one work of art. A wine bottle was painted looking down into the bottle, looking up through the bottle and looking at the side of the bottle as it sat on a table. A person's face was shown in profile and full-front at the same time.

Could Picasso paint a realistic face? Sure. See his self-portrait below left. But sometimes it's the elements that have been fragmented and reassembled that tell the story most fully. His portrait of Dora Maar below right was painted in June of 1941. Because of his notoriety, Picasso was one of the few "degenerate" artists who were allowed to live (reasonably) unbothered during the Nazi occupation of Paris. What would it say for Picasso to have lived in the midst of such a human nightmare and paint a lovely portrait of a woman sitting in a chair wearing a hat?
Pablo Picasso. (Left) Self-Portrait. 1896. Musee Picasso, Paris.
(Right) Woman Wearing a Hat, 9 June 1941. Musee Picasso, Paris.
Surely her face, which looks both left and right as if anticipating (fearing?) a knock on the door, and her hands clenched almost claw-like on the arm of a chair better tell the story of the life she and Picasso lived in Paris at this time - a life that was punctuated on more than one occasion by visits from the Gestapo and by the loss of friends whose lives were taken by the occupying army. What she has seen, what she has said, how she lives, all of this has been changed by the circumstances in which she is living. The pieces of her are still there, but they don't look like they did at the beginning of the war.

The prophet Zephaniah calls on Israel to sing and shout and rejoice and exult because the Lord was in her midst. Rejoice, Israel - land and people, politically and religiously - because you have been reassembled. During Advent, Christians look forward to the day that is to come - a day when God is again Emmanuel, with us, in our midst - when creation is put back together, the broken places healed, the rough places a plain. But what will we look like on that day?

There are plenty of people who discount Picasso's work - all Cubist work, in fact - because it "doesn't look realistic." But it's important to remember that Picasso - the creator of the piece - knew what he wanted to say and show. And he knew how to reassemble the elements to make the statement he wanted. Our task isn't to tell the creator what to do (or not do). Instead it is to try to understand what the creator is saying as the pieces are reassembled.

For additional thoughts on reassembling pieces into a whole, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 3:7-18, click here.
For thoughts on maps of Jerusalem and the presence of God, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page here.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Malachi3.1-4: Some Water...But Mostly Fire

Malachi 3:1-4 refers to two occupations to help people understand what it will be like when the Lord presence is in the temple. The references incorporate two of the four basic elements: fire and water. The work involving water is a launderer. God is like fuller's soap, Malachi says. For more on the symbolism and reality of laundry and fuller's soap, click here.

But in addition to the water-related laundering parallels, there are also metalsmithing parallels. God's arrival and presence, Malachi writes, will be like a refiner's fire. Metalsmiths use fire for several different tasks. The fire is used for melting metals so that the liquid metal can be poured into molds. But before the molding process, fire can be used to purify the metal. Silver and gold can both contain impurities. Sometimes the impurities add interest. For example, copper ore mixed in with gold ore creates what we call "rose gold." However, sometimes the desired outcome is pure gold or silver, and to get that, the impurities must be removed.

The two images here are of metalsmiths in their workspaces separated by several hundred years. The top image is a photograph taken by William J. Carpenter in 1915 of a Navajo silversmith by his fire. The bottom image is St. Eligius, patron saint of goldsmiths. Notice the similarities of the tools. The Navajo silversmith has a fire and St. Eligius has a very ornate furnace to refine the metals with which they are working. The tools in the later image are very similar to those in the earlier image: tongs, hammer, anvil, engraving burins, mallets, large scales, weights, ceramic furnace, blow pipes. Design has changed over time, of course, but the methods have remained the same - which offers contemporary hearers the opportunity to understand the text and to see it in action.

We may tend to think of fire more at Pentecost or in the new fire of the Easter vigil than we do in Advent. But the candles on the Advent wreath can remind us that God works to refine us in this season as well. 

Top image: William J. Carpenter. Navajo Silversmith. c. 1915. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
Bottom image: Master of Balaam. St. Eligius in His Workshop. c. 1450. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rijksmuseum.

It's not a Christmas carol, but check Art&Faith Matters on Facebook to see when we sing about this refiner's fire image.

For thoughts on Luke's quotation of Isaiah (Luke 3:1-6), click here.