Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mark 10.2-16: Husbands, Wives, Children

The gospel reading for Proper 22B/Ordinary 27B/Pentecost 19 (Mark 10:2-16) includes exchanges on the topics of marriage/divorce and children. The child-illustrated episode here is not exactly that of Proper 20B/O25B/P17, but the blog post written for that Sunday discussed various arrangements of Jesus and children, so it seemed a bit redundant to approach the text from that point of view.

Having the exchanges about marriage and divorce and children in proximity to one another brings to mind questions about what it might have been like to grow up in the house of Mary and Joseph, a subject on which scripture is remarkably silent. Except for the episode at the temple when Jesus was twelve years old, canonical scripture gives no mention of Jesus' childhood, adolescence or young adulthood. But it is in the house of Mary and Joseph that Jesus would have most fully seen a marriage and the worth and role of children, both topics addressed in this week's readings.

Because the text is silent, artists have had free reign to imagine life in that household. Considered through the paintings, life might have been tedious, with every act of the young, growing Jesus taking on a foreshadowing of his life on earth. Consider John Everett Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents, also called The Carpenter's Shop. Here the boy Jesus has drawn blood via a wound caused by a nail in Joseph's carpenter shop. The blood pools in his palm and drips on his foot as his mother comforts him. His cousin John (the baptizer) brings a bowl of water to wash away the blood while a white dove sits on the rung of a ladder leaning against the back wall. These clearly foreshadow Jesus' baptism and crucifixion. Millais based the scene on a local carpenter's shop, going so far as to get sheep's heads from a local butcher to use as the basis for the flock seen through the open door.
Millais. Christ in the House of His Parents. 1849-50. Oil on canvas. London: Tate Britain.
The painting was not universally acclaimed. Charles Dickens wrote that the boy Christ was "a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown" (Household Words, 15 June 1850). In this interpretation, Mary and Jesus form a unit with Joseph and assorted other people orbiting around them.

American artist Frank V. Dumond shows an older Jesus with an older Mary and Joseph. The three gather around the supper table. Jesus and Mary glow in their white garments while Joseph sits in shadows wearing dark clothing. Joseph is given only a thin ring halo, while the other two members of the family have solid disks announcing their holiness. As in Millais' picture, there is a wooden table in the room, no doubt made by the carpenter-in-residence (though the brace along the parental side of the table makes one wonder about the structural soundness of the furniture and the abilities of the carpenter). Jesus stands on one side of the table while his parents prepare to receive the meal. In this composition, Mary and Joseph are more of a unit, seated side by side, though Joseph tends to disappear and Mary's affinity with Jesus is shown in their white garments.
Frank V. Dumond. Jesus with His Parents at the Supper Table.
The lilies, common in scenes of the Annunciation as symbols of Mary's purity, are still here growing in a foreground pot. A single window pierces the wall of the house and allows light to shine on Jesus' clothing. Parents and child gather together to share a meal in a prefiguration of Communion with Christ presiding at the table rather than his father.

Marriage and divorce...the worth and role of children...the dynamics of family life...Jesus spoke about all of them. He experienced them firsthand in the house of Mary and Joseph.

This week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post looks at the reading from Hebrew scripture (Job 1:1, 2:1-10). What do you imagine the scene between God and "the adversary" looked like? Click on the Facebook link

For thoughts on Job 1:1, 2:1-10, click here.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Mark 9.38-50: Salt and Paint

Have salt in yourselves. The gospel reading for Proper 21B/Ordinary 26B/Pentecost 18 (Mark 9:38-50) features this instruction from Jesus. He reminds his followers that salt is good but salt that has lost its saltiness is not much use. Have salt in yourselves, Jesus says, and be at peace with one another.

Yes, we should. But sometimes it isn't as easy in the living as the hearing. A case in point is Vincent van Gogh. Few artists work is more easily recognizable than Vincent. His work routinely sells for tens of millions of dollars (in May 2015 his painting "L'Allee Des Alyscamps" sold for $66 million rather than the estimated $40 million, proving that the appetite for his work is still strong). The only thing perhaps as well-known as his work is his life.

Failed art dealer, failed teacher, failed evangelist, and if one accounts by economic success during his lifetime, failed artist. Vincent struggled in personal relationships with family, friends and strangers. He thought of himself as a painter but the world tried to send him another message. His work was not appreciated widely...or really at all.

In 1880, while living in Cuesmes, Belgium, in the mining region of the Borinage, he wrote in a letter to his brother: So you mustn’t think that I’m rejecting this or that; in my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know? (Letter 155, Br. 1990: 154 | CL: 133; From: Vincent van Gogh, To: Theo van Gogh. Date: Cuesmes, between about Tuesday, 22 and Thursday, 24 June 1880)

Now called Maison Van Gogh, this house was where Vincent rented a room while living in Cuesmes.

It was while Vincent was living in the Borinage that he devoted his life to art. He had recently been dismissed from his position as a preacher and was searching for what he was to do. In September 1880, still living in Cuesmes, he wrote again to Theo: Well, and notwithstanding, it was in this extreme poverty that I felt my energy return and that I said to myself, in any event I’ll recover from it, I’ll pick up my pencil that I put down in my great discouragement and I’ll get back to drawing, and from then on, it seems to me, everything has changed for me, and now I’m on my way and my pencil has become somewhat obedient and seems to become more so day by day. It was poverty, too long and too severe, that had discouraged me to the point where I could no longer do anything. (Letter 158. Br. 1990: 157 | CL: 136; From: Vincent van Gogh, To: Theo van Gogh. Date: Cuesmes, Friday, 24 September 1880)

And the artist was (re)born.

Vincent Van Gogh - child of the manse, aspiring preacher - put his own situation in the context of scripture, quoting Psalm 22 and Mark's gospel in letter 155. We owe Vincent's brother Theo for the financial and emotional support that made it possible for Vincent to buy paint and canvas on which to work. We owe Vincent's sister-in-law Johanna for the preservation of his work after his and Theo's deaths only six months apart. But our greatest debt is to Vincent for "having salt in himself" and pursuing the work God gave him to do.

For contemporary art based on salt, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page here.
For thoughts on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 click on this link.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mark 9.30-37: Jesus and Children, Generally and Specifically

As is often the case, the details probably best identify the subject. The gospel reading for Proper 20B/Ordinary 25B/Pentecost 17 (Mark 9:30-37) is a story that shares broad strokes with other scripture passages. Disciples, Jesus, children -- sometimes they are jumbled together in paintings and expected to serve all the stories where Jesus is in the presence of children.

The most popular treatment of these elements seems to center around the episode where the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for trying to keep the children away from Jesus (Matthew 19:13-14, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). In contemporary illustrations, often Jesus is simply with a group of children in a landscape. No other adults are present. The children sit on his lap, stand at his knee, occasionally sit on his shoulder. Jesus is often smiling or reaching out his hand to touch and bless them. In at least one image Jesus kicks a soccer ball with a group of children. Because there are no adults present, these compositions may be projecting the result of Jesus' comments to the disciples. Children are unhindered and unrestrained in the presence of of an unhindered and unrestrained Jesus.

But that doesn't necessarily speak to the Mark 9 passage. In that particular passage, the child, who may be the promise of the future but is considered of little consequence in the present, is put in the middle of the group. Jesus holds the child and in his speech ties himself to the child: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Below are three pictures. Which one do you think is the best depiction of the Mark 9 text? Perhaps you are dissatisfied with all of them. Look at the details of the composition. What's best or what's missing in each of them? Information on the works are at the bottom of the page.

 (Top left: Nicolas Maes. Christ Blessing the Children. 1652-1653. National Gallery, London. Top right: Carl Bloch, Suffer the Little Children. 1865-1879. Frederiksborg Castle Chapel, Hillerod, Denmark. Bottom: C.R. Leslie, Christ Rebuking His Disciples by Calling the Little Child. c. 1860. New Norcia Art Gallery, Australia.

The Art&Faith Matters Facebook page will feature paintings of Jesus and the children - not necessarily this specific text but they will give you something to push against as you consider the meaning of Mark 9. Click here and here.

For thoughts on Proverbs 31:10-31, click here.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mark 8: Not Far Enough Behind

Get behind me, Satan. Except in the context of Mark 8, gospel reading for Proper 19B/Ordinary 24B/Pentecost 16, Satan is really Peter. The speaker is Jesus, and he is chastising Peter for tempting him to do less, to be less than he is. Even if the "less" would be easier on Jesus.

But what happens if Satan isn't far enough behind?

Luca Signorelli created a fresco cycle for the cathedral in Orvieto, Italy, that features a panel titled "Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist". In front of a classical-style building the Antichrist preaches while horrors and supernatural events take place all around. But the Antichrist does not speak his own words. Standing right behind him is Satan, whispering in the ear of the Antichrist, prompting the words to be preached, bringing horror and terror to the world.
Luca Signorelli. Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist. Chapel of S. Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto, Italy. 1499-1502. 
For the Cathedral, see
Though his facial features are similar to what we normally see of Jesus, Signorelli's Antichrist has been identified with Florentine friar Girolama Savonarola - overthrower of the Medici in Florence, apocalyptic preacher, participant in bonfires of the vanities. Savonarola was burned and hanged in May of 1498, having reached (and passed) the pinnacle of his power and influence just before Luca began the Orvieto frescoes.

Peter's words to Jesus in the gospel reading may seem harmless on the surface. Who would want their friend to suffer and die as Jesus has predicted he must? Even Jesus would pray that the cup would pass from him. But God's plan is God's plan. So not only do those voices contrary to God's plan and God's will need to be behind us, they need to be far enough behind that we cannot hear them whispering in our ear.

For thoughts on Proverbs 1:20-33, click here.