Sunday, November 29, 2015

Luke 3.1-6: Build a Road

The language is that of road-building, though Luke left that part out when quoting the prophet. In the gospel reading for Advent 2C (Luke 3:1-6), Luke says: it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” The "original" is: A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Building roads today may be perceived as easier because of the technological and engineering advances. But, then, along with the engineering advances, the expectations have also risen. Today it isn't enough to carve out a passable track over the natural ridge configuration of a mountain; instead, the mountain must be dynamited out of the way and a more level roadbed laid.

To be sure, the point of the prophetic passage is that the people understand that God is about to (re)enter their lives and a way must be made for that. In the case of Jesus, God will make the way with the incarnation. But the metaphor is that of a road. And roads, whether by God or by humans, must still be built.

A part of the backbreaking process of 19th-century road construction is captured by Gustave Courbet in his work The Stonebreakers. Courbet, a French artist, established Realism as an anti-academic approach to art in the middle of the 19th century. The picture, treated harshly by many contemporary critics, shows two figures engaged in clearing stones from roadbeds and then breaking them into smaller pieces. The stones were turned into gravel for paving material and other uses.
Gustave Courbet. The Stonebreakers. 1849. Destroyed 1945. Previously Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany.
The two figures are anonymous. We would not be able to recognize either of the two workers should we see them again, but they seem by turns too young and too old to be doing this demanding work. The artist saw the two workers at their task as he was riding in his carriage into the countryside to paint a landscape and was struck by their suitability as a painting subject. He invited them to his studio the following day and began the painting.

Realism refused to idealize any subject, so there is no golden glow of daylight or oneness with nature. There is only work. Pull, swing, chop, load, carry, dump, start over.

Philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a friend of Courbet's, wrote of this painting: “Our industrial civilization which everyday invents marvelous machines to labour – to sow, spin, in short to execute all sorts of jobs, is yet incapable of liberating the human being from the grossest, the most repugnant and painful of tasks – the lamentable lot of the poor.”

Though civilization may not have been able to liberate the poor from their "lamentable lot", the coming of Christ was to accomplish just that. And these two workers, one too young, one too old, disregarded by society, certainly among "the least of these", would have been right at home in Luke's gospel with its babies born to women who were too old and too young, with its working shepherds who were unlikely attendees at the manger, with its "blessed are the poor."

Prepare the way of the Lord.

Heeeeere's Malachi! Click on the Facebook link to find out which of these figures is Malachi and what he is doing in this altarpiece.

For other thoughts on Malachi 3:1-4, click here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Is Today "The Day"?

"The days are surely coming" we read in Jeremiah on Advent 1C (Jeremiah 33:1-4). And on "the day" no one will mistake it, according to Luke's gospel (Luke 21:25-36). There will be signs in the heavens, in the stars, in the moon. Luke's gospel says that when we hear of such cosmic events they should remind us that Jesus is returning. We should stand up and lift up our heads.

Luca Signorelli depicted "the day", but his imagining of the events probably won't make anyone want to lift up their heads. Instead, stars fall from the sky and go pale; fires and earthquakes shake the earth. The painting is half of a lunette and doorway fresco titled Finimondo (the end of the world). This is the right side of the door, and while the heavens fall apart at the top of the composition, at the bottom stand two witnesses to the event: King David (wearing a turban) and a sibyl (holding an open book).
Luca Signorelli. Finimondo. 1499-1502. Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto Cathedral. Orvieto, Italy.
For Chapel of San Brizio, see:
These two witnesses are mentioned in the "Dies Irae" (literally "day of wrath"), a Latin hymn written c. 13th century. The first verse says: The day of wrath, that day/Will dissolve the world in ashes/As foretold by David and the Sibyl. Sibyls (the Greek word sibylla means prophetess) were women of Greco-Roman origin who prophesied at sacred sites under the influence of a deity. This sibyl, it seems, wrote The Laetabundus (literally, Joy Abounding), the liturgical sequence that is part of the Mass for Christmas and Epiphany. These figures, two non-Christian figures interestingly, witness to "the day". The one that is surely coming.

In every age people have seen signs in the heavens. They have seen wars and heard rumors of wars. They have remembered Jesus' words and know that it could happen at any time. Any day, any year could be the "the day" and "the year" of Jesus' return. Will the day catch us unexpectedly? Maybe this Advent is the time for us to stand up and lift up our heads.

It could be at any time. See how time and the signs of the sun, moon and stars, intersects in technology on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. 

For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 33:14-16, click here.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A King for Today

It seems that the name by which it is known may help interpret the day. Is this coming Sunday known as Christ the King B? Or do you prefer Reign of Christ B? The first seems to focus on the person of Jesus, who as Christ will one day rule over this world - every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. The Reign of Christ seems to focus not just on who sits on that throne but what happens once he takes his place there.

But these two questions are only the tip of the iceberg when considering an image or images for this day and these scriptures (2 Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 132:1-12, Revelation 1:4b-8 and John 18:33-37). Do we look for Christ descending in the clouds as in Revelation - usually accompanied by a precisely-arranged throng of saints, martyrs, apostles and angels? Do we prefer an enthroned Christ, sitting calmly, holding and wearing the regalia of his position as king? Depicted as a king that Pontius Pilate, who questioned Jesus about his kingship in John's gospel, would have understood. Though Jesus would look like any earthly king, we presume that he, unlike the Roman emperors of his day and many rulers since, would be dispensing justice.

But what of today? We may look at the reign of Christ and the return of Christ with different eyes in light of the events in Beirut, in Baghdad, in Paris and in places where killings and terror were carried out against individuals rather than groups large enough to make the news. The clouds and phalanxes of winged figures may not offer a vision that speaks to the kind of king we need today. Though not a specific depiction of this liturgical day, the icon (at right) titled "Christ of Maryknoll" by Brother Robert Lentz nevertheless offers us an image that impacts a view of Christ as king. It is a purposely ambiguous: is Christ inside the barbed wire or are we? Have we imprisoned Christ - who he is, what he calls us to do and to be? Have we tried to contain him, limit him behind "barbed wire?" Or perhaps we have imprisoned ourselves. Have we erected barriers that keep Christ out of our lives, our institutions, our business? Is Christ on the other side of the fence offering us freedom in his reign, if only there was no barbed wire between us?

Either way, the barbed wire is an obstacle. Perhaps it offers no real hindrance to Christ and his purpose, but it is an obstruction to us. It may be a parallel to Frederick Buechner's take on prayer. Keep praying, he says, "...not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God's door before God will open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there's no way of getting to your door. 'Ravish my heart,' John Donne wrote. But God will not usually ravish. He will only court." (Wishful Thinking) What if Christ cannot truly be king for us - much less the world - because the way to our door is blocked with obstacles of our own making?

Every eye will see him, Revelation promises. So though present in every time and place, weeping over every evil act of today, we know that Christ has not yet returned. Because we haven't seen. We still wait. We still need the reign of the Prince of Peace.

For Robert Lentz icons, see:

And where does this magnificent creature fit in? Check out the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click here.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bringing Children into this World

Fair warning. This week's post is more reflection than exegesis. While browsing images for both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the pairing of the texts for Proper 28B/Ordinary 33B/Pentecost 25 (I Samuel 20:4-20 and I Samuel 2:1-10 along with Mark 13:1-8, especially verses 1 and 2) led to the thoughts here.

"For this child I prayed." The phrase is actually between the two passages from I Samuel for this week. But it remembers the first while anticipating the second. Hannah prayed for a child and God finally answered her prayer. This child, I prayed. Hannah's prayer continues to echo in faithful, hopeful, often-disappointed hearts to this very day.

"Not one stone will be left." Jesus reminds the disciples (and us) about the fragility of our world. All we need do is look around to see that Titus as a type still exists in our world. Titus who laid siege to Jerusalem, finally breached its walls, marched into the city and destroyed the Temple. Almost every stone.

As I pondered these scriptures it occurred to me that we continue to pray for children to come into the world even as we know that this world is a fragile place, often especially dangerous to the very children we ask God to give us. But we continue to ask.

Despite the Tituses. Despite the destruction. Despite the danger. Despite those who lead others astray. Despite the wars and the rumors of wars. Despite nation fighting nation and kingdom fighting kingdom. Despite earthquakes. Despite famine. Despite it all. We continue to ask for children and God continues to answer that request. Children continue to be brought into this world. This world. Not the next, not another. This world.

Pictures above: (top) Prayed-for Child. Photo (c) Lynn Miller. (below) Francesco Hayez. The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. 1867. Venice: Gallerie delle'Accademia.

See how this painting (Bosch's Adoration of the Magi) relates to the story of Hannah at the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

For additional thoughts on Hannah, click here.