Sunday, March 15, 2015

John 12.20-33: Seeds

Unless a grain falls into the earth and dies, it's just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. That's part of the gospel reading for Lent 5B (John 12:20-33). It's clearly a reference to the resurrection, in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy, Piero della Francesca illustrates a legend that puts an interesting spin on the resurrection, on seeds and what grows from them and on the crucifixion.

The Golden Legend, a 13th-century work by Jacopus de Voragine, tells the story of the True Cross. According to this legend, the wood for the cross on which Christ was crucified begins with Adam. Piero tells the story this way: when Adam was close to death, he sent his son Seth to the gates of Paradise where the Archangel Michael gave Seth seeds from the very tree under which Adam and Eve had first sinned. Seth was told to take the seeds and relay the message that when the seeds grew into a tree that bore fruit, then Adam would be healthy again.

Using continuous narration (more than one episode of a story appears in the same panel), the artist sets the legend's opening scenes. At the lunette's right, Adam sits on the ground, surrounded by his children, instructing Seth. In a background scene at the center, Seth meets with Michael. At the left is Adam's burial. He has been laid on the ground at his grave, and Seth leans down to put the seeds in Adam's mouth.
The Burial of Adam, part of the Finding of the True Cross. 1452-1466. Fresco cycle. 
Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy.

The seeds will grow into the tree at the lunette's center. Though plaster loss deprives us of half the tree, enough remains that we see a tree bearing neither leaves nor fruit. That tree will become a bridge (a literal bridge, not a literary, theological or metaphorical one) in the story of Solomon and Sheba before the wood is discarded, lost and forgotten. Through miraculous happenings, it is found again, and the wood becomes the cross on which Jesus will be crucified. And in that cross, Adam is indeed healed.

Piero's fresco cycle continues telling the story to the cross' finding by Helena, mother of Roman emperor Constantine. The details of the story are, of course, legend, not scripture. But it is legend following themes set out by early Christian writers. In the epistles we read of Christ as the last Adam (I Corinthians 1:45), and we hear mention of first fruits, and we are reminded that Jesus was "hanged" on a tree (Galatians 3:13). Piero's fresco cycle at least gives us a visual entree into the things that tie the first Adam to the last.

Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies, it's just a seed. But the right seed, if planted, bears good fruit.

This week's reading from Jeremiah brings the word of God that promises a covenant written on the hearts of people. Get a closer look at the beautiful contemporary piece shown here (and discover the artist who created it) at the Art&Faith Matters FB page here.

See Food&Faith's look at hyssop and wheatberries by clicking on the link.

For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 31:31-34, click here.

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