Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mark 8.31-38: I Have a Cross...You, Too?

Take up your cross and follow. That's one of the familiar phrases from the gospel reading for Lent 2B (Mark 8:31-38). An image search for the phrase yields many, many (many!) silhouetted figures against a sunset. The icon below offers a different visual as saints take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Like all icons, space is not dealt with realistically. Human figures do get smaller as they recede back in space, but there are only half-figures - no legs extend below any of the cross bars. But the intent is clear in the text in the top right quadrant of Christ's cross: 
ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν ἀράτω καὶ σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι
let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me
The placement and pattern of the crosses calls to mind the pattern of the polystavrion (poly- "many", stauros, "cross"), the liturgical vestment worn by bishops and pictured in the icon below (The Three Holy Hierarchs - Sts. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian). The tessellated crosses and repeated patterns create a bold geometric graphic that looks quite modern. 
But more than just the modern feel, those cross-covered vestments might help us think about the gospel reading in a new way. The icon of those who have taken up their crosses might be merged with the cross-covered vestments. Those wearing the vestments might be helping to carry the crosses of their brothers and sisters in Christ who have taken up their own cross and are following Jesus. While Jesus said that each of us must take up our own cross, is it not true that as followers of Christ, as children of God, we do not follow alone. Rather, borrowing from a well-known rock band, we get to carry each other...or at least share in the carrying of each other's crosses. We get to.

Perhaps a fabric artist in your congregation could help design and fabricate a quilt to embody this idea. People could create "their" cross - perhaps just the cross with their name - in a block that is part of a quilt that moves from one member's home to another, reminding us that we each carry our own cross and share in carrying one another's.

Black and white image from asimplelife Quilts:

Check Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page to think about a time when someone helped Jesus carry his cross.
For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Lent 2B (Genesis 8:1-17), click here.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Mark 1.9-15: Into the Wilderness

The gospel reading for Lent 1B comes from Mark's gospel (1:9-15). It is remarkably more succinct than other accounts of Jesus' wilderness experience. A mere six verses move us from Jesus' baptism with descending dove and voice from the heaven to forty days in the wilderness (with wild beasts and angels) to the arrest of John and Jesus' proclamation to Galilee of good news. Other gospels expand the details we associate with the forty days: temptations, stones and bread, the pinnacle of the temple, mountain heights. But not Mark's gospel. For Mark the forty days pass in a blink. The days are important - note that it is the Spirit who drives Jesus into the wilderness - but no details are included.

British artist Stanley Spencer sought to give some form to the forty days that Mark passed by in the blink of an eye. In the 1930s and 1940s Spencer set himself the project of creating forty paintings, one for each day Christ was in the wilderness. The series, called "Christ in the Wilderness", never came to full completion. Eighteen drawings were made and eight paintings completed. Each of the designs explores the solitary figure of Christ interacting with various elements of the wilderness - a hen, a scorpion, lilies, eagles. The painting titled "Driven by the spirit into the wilderness" was inspired by Mark 1:12.
"Driven by the spirit into the wilderness." 1942. Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.

In the painting Christ strides through a sparse landscape grasping tree trunks and branches as he pulls himself up a hill. Nothing overt in the paintings speaks of Christ's forty days in the wilderness, a choice that echoes Mark's lack of narrative detail. The figure of Jesus is not the slim figure commonly seen in paintings. The bulky figure and billowing garment are common to all the finished paintings in the series. Spencer envisioned the pictures hanging as a group on the ceiling of a church. In such a position Jesus' garments would be perceived as billowing clouds. Interesting that part of the earthy reality of a wilderness experience was designed to be perceived as something as ethereal as clouds.    

The series of paintings conflates various gospel texts with Jesus' forty days. Paintings are based on the "consider the lilies" passage as well as 'foxes have holes", "the power to tread on snakes and scorpions" and others. All of those sayings, of course, came after the forty days. And yet the forty days are a foundation for all the days of ministry that came after. Perhaps Spencer's paintings and their scriptural pairings may offer opportunities for our own study during the forty days of Lent.

The image at left is a Last Judgment (Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua). It helps link the themes of Lent with the Lent 1B Genesis reading about the covenant God made with Noah. See how it does that by clicking on the link to the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

For a blog essay on the Genesis reading for Lent 1B (Genesis 9:8-17), click here

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Transfiguration...or is it?

Look. Up in the sky. It's Jesus. And he's wearing a white tunic. 
One of these is the Ascension; the other is the Transfiguration. Which one is which?

There are similarities in the scriptural accounts of these incidents. Both take place on a mountaintop. Both take place within the sight of people. Both have two figures that unexpectedly appear. So when artists set out to paint these stories, the results may look very similar. How can you know which picture shows which story? 

The most obvious distinguishing mark is probably found on Jesus' hands. The Ascension happens after Jesus' crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, so ascending Jesus will have nail marks in his hands and feet that transfiguring Jesus will not have.  

You can also survey the crowd. Who witnessed the Transfiguration? Jesus, disciples, Moses and Elijah. Who was at the Ascension? The disciples (and two angels, if you read the account in Acts 1 rather than the accounts from the Gospels). Which do you see in which picture?

Though the compositions seem remarkably similar, the details will tell you which story is being told.

The Transfiguration is celebrated Sunday, February 15. Ascension Sunday will be May 17, 2015.

Left: Raphael. Transfiguration of Jesus, Vatican Museums, 1516-1520.
Right: John S. Copley. Ascension, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1775.

This week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post looks at Transfiguration B's reading from 2 Kings 2:1-14. Two comparative paintings are here and here.
For additional thoughts on Transfiguration, click here and here.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mark 1.29-39: In Search of a Deserted Place

While it was still dark, Jesus went to a deserted place to pray (Mark 1:29-39, Epiphany 5B). In imitation of this action (repeated more than once according to the gospels), Jesus' followers have been looking for deserted places in which to pray ever since.

They have gone to literal deserts. The so-called desert mothers and fathers were hermits who lived primarily in the deserts of Egypt in order to be closer to God. Arguably the most well-known of these was St. Anthony (who has a host of other designations as well...Anthony the Great, Anthony the Abbot, etc.). At one point in his life, Anthony believed himself to be the first Christian to go live in the desert. In a vision he was told of St. Paul of Thebes, so he set out to find this "more excellent" servant and hermit. The meeting of Sts. Anthony and Paul is often set in front of a cave, presumably Paul's cave, and usually including the raven that brought bread to the two hermits (much like Elijah was fed by ravens).
A Thebaid: Monks and Hermits in a Landscape by Lorenzo Costa. c. 1505. J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA.
Some Christians live where deserts are scarce. Nevertheless, they created their own "desert" places, and indicated them by name. One example is Ireland's Dysert O'Dea in County Clare. Though a single meaning of "dysert" seems obscured in the fog of mist and legend, speculation (and variation) abound. It is not a big leap to see the word as a a cognate of "desert" which is, indeed, one of the suggested root meanings. Ireland, the land of a million greens, does not have its own desert, though the Burren -(the root, Boireann, means "rocky place") is a wild place. If no desert was handy, then people who heard the stories of the Christian hermits in the Egyptian desert had to create their own desert.
Eventually, though, some Christians even found places like Dysert O'Dea too civilized and, seeking unity with God, they were on the move again. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, a monastic community moved to Skellig Michael, an island off the west coast of Ireland. Michael is the larger of two rocky, remote islands. Though it can be green, it is more than adequately described as a "deserted place."
Christians continue to follow Christ's example and seek places of retreat, whether for a weekend or a lifetime of prayer. That he chose to take time away for prayer even without the constant time and attention demands of cell phones and other devices should remind us that the kind of retreat and prayer that he modeled isn't about finding balance in a technological world but is instead about maintaining connection with the one who sends us and saves us. Where is your deserted place?

What does the book at left have to say about the gospel lesson for Epiphany 5B? Click below to go to the Food and Faith blog and find out. More about monks on the move at the Art&Faith Facebook page.

For thoughts on the Isaiah passage for Epiphany 5B (Isaiah 40:21-31), click here.