Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Face Transfigured

Note: Sunday, February 7 can be identified as either Epiphany 5C or Transfiguration Sunday. This post addresses the texts for Transfiguration C Sunday. If you are looking for the Epiphany 5C texts, go here.

On a mountain. Bright white light. Face made to look a new and surprising way. Surrounding figures from the heavenly realm. Yes to all of the above in the picture below. It is Transfiguration.
Tintoretto. Moses Receives the Law. 1560-1562. Venice: Madonna dell'Orto.
Except that the picture shows Moses. So it isn't technically THE Transfiguration.

Really, this is Tintoretto's version of Moses receiving the two tablets of the law. Moses is illuminated until he is white. His arms are outstretched in a gesture that resembles Christ on the cross.  What the artist has done is draw the connection between the two texts.

How often does God act in history doing the same thing? A child is born against seemingly impossible odds. God elevates a younger brother or sister above an older sibling. God relates to people in a new way through a trip to a mountaintop. The third example is the story here. Two trips to a mountaintop, and on the return trip back down the mountain, people know God in a new way. So Jesus and Moses are transfigured, but through the law and the Word, all God's people have the power to be transformed. Thanks be to God.

Luke 5.1-11: Fishing Boat

Note: Sunday, February 7, 2016, can be observed as Epiphany 5C or Transfiguration Sunday. This post looks at the gospel reading for Epiphany 5C. The post considering Transfiguration can be found here.

It would be easy to be sidetracked with fish. Certainly everyone who has ever dropped a hook in the water could be sidetracked. The gospel reading for Epiphany 5 (Luke 5:1-11) begins with Jesus again pressed by crowds and seeking refuge in a boat. As the reading continues, Jesus tells the disciples to put out to deep water, despite the fact that they had been fishing all night and caught nothing.

Finally, they catch something. Many somethings. Lots of fish. But there may be an even more interesting detail than a big catch of fish. That has to do with how these fish were brought into the boat. The fish start coming in to the point that the nets start to break. So they do something interesting (and often overlooked). They call their partners to help them.

Fishing wasn't the solitary activity of baiting a hook and dropping the line in the water. It was a group effort requiring teamwork. Nets were dragged through the water, and fish were trapped in the net before being pulled into the boat. Imagine a net full of fish. It isn't something that one person could do.

Perhaps that was the lesson the disciples were to take with them as they began to catch people (and note that here Jesus doesn't say that they will be fishing for people but rather that they will be catching people). When there are so many people, will we not need our partners? Will it be impossible to pull in all the fish by ourselves or with only the people in our boat? Will we need to call our partners in other boats?

How would you grade the artist below at capturing this aspect of the Epiphany 5 gospel reading? How do we do at calling our partners so that we may bring more fish into the boat?
Raphael. Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Cartoon. 1515. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

For thoughts on Psalm 138, click here.
For thoughts on Isaiah 6:1-13, click here

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Luke 4. 21-30: Words of Our Mouths

The lectionary readings for Epiphany explore how the world came to know Jesus: visitors from the East, voices and doves at his baptism, turning water into wine at a wedding, reading and interpreting scripture. These have been the gospel readings for the past weeks. The gospel reading for Epiphany 4C (Luke 4:21-30) continues the reading from 3C (Luke 4:14-21) where Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll and announces that the scripture has been fulfilled in him. Verse 21 is the bridge verse, and in the 4C reading we see what happens when people do not accept words as God's truth. Jesus is marched out of town in preparation for being killed.

Such a response might not have surprised Jeremiah, whose call is the focus of the Epiphany 4C reading from Hebrew scripture. In this reading Jeremiah is called to deliver the word of God to God's people. God's hand touches Jeremiah's mouth as a sign that God will provide the words Jeremiah is to say.
Marc Chagall. Jeremiah Receiving the Gift of Prophecy (aka Calling of Jeremiah). 1957. Hand-colored etching. Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University.$
Marc Chagall shows the moment when the words are symbolically transferred from the divine realm 
to the human one, though Chagall has made one significant change. In the print, the hand that comes from heaven to inspire Jeremiah's words belongs to an angel rather than to God as the text says. Perhaps this is Chagall's acknowledgement of the Second Commandment that prohibits images of God. A bright circular disk or shield covers the angel's chest and emits rays, presumably of light. Angel or God, the being in the top half of the page is the focus of Jeremiah's gaze. The background is indistinct, and the angel is barefoot. And even as the angel's right hand touches Jeremiah's mouth, Jeremiah's right hand is over his heart in a gesture of loyalty or allegiance, perhaps.

Centuries earlier, Michelangelo painted Jeremiah in an entirely different pose. The Renaissance Jeremiah appears more aged. No longer the young prophet at the beginning of his career, he sits rather than stands, looks down rather than up, and with his right hand covers his own mouth in a gesture that is not the potential sign of loyalty or allegiance from Chagall's work. 
Michelangelo Buonarotti. Prophet Jeremiah. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. 1508-1512.
For the Sistine Chapel, see:
How would you describe the gesture that Michelangelo gave to Jeremiah? Is he simply resting? Is he propping his head with his right hand? Is he despairing? Has he seen too much in his career? Is he trying to block the words God has put in his mouth from being spoken? 

In your own life, are you the young Jeremiah with God providing the words of your mouth? Or does the earlier portrait of the older prophet - who covers his own mouth - ring true to you? 

For additional thoughts on Luke 4:21-30, click here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Reading the Text

Both the reading from the prophet and the gospel reading for Epiphany 3C (Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-21, respectively) are about...reading. Specifically public reading in the context of Jewish history, faith and life. In Nehemiah, Ezra reads aloud to the assembled people the book of the law of Moses. In the text from Luke, Jesus gathers with what is more than likely his "home" congregation and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, declaring the fulfillment of the prophetic text.

Each week scripture is read aloud publicly in worship. In many Christian churches there is a lectern for the reading of scripture and a pulpit for preaching. Someone rather pointedly said that the lectern was for the inspired word of God while the pulpit was for the uninspired words of the preacher. The practice of reading from a table or desk comes to Christian worship from the Jewish reading desk from which Torah (and in the case of Isaiah, haftarah, aka haftorah) is read during services.

The reading desk/table sits on the bimah, the raised platform that highlights scripture reading as the focus of the service. The desk enables the congregation and reader to see each another and facilitates the audibility of the reading. The style of the reading desk in a synagogue probably owes more to the fashion of the day and the architecture of the synagogue than anything else. Likewise, artists' interpretation of these passages probably tells us more about synagogues of their own day than those in the day of Jesus.
James Tissot. Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum.
In Tissot's version of the story, the synagogue at Nazareth is quite ornate. The scrolls from which Jesus is reading rest on a table designed to place the scroll at a comfortable reading height for a standing man and to provide a backrest for the tall scrolls. The table highlights the woodturner's art with turned legs on the bottom and turned spindles across the top rail. The scrolls are encased in ornate covers (mantels) and each wooden shaft (atzei chayim, trees of life) is crowned by a silver kesser. Is this how you pictured Jesus' hometown synagogue?

Wooden tables don't survive from Jesus' day, of course. But we have clues to first-century synagogue design in the excavated city of Dura Europos, Syria.* Among the wall paintings in the synagogue is a full-length figure of Ezra reading the scroll of the book of the law. There is no reading desk present, though "Sunday School" materials often give Ezra a desk in addition to the wooden platform on which the text says he stands. One tradition identifies Ezra's reading of the book of the law as the beginning of regular readings from the Torah. Some scholars also credit Ezra with inspiring the haftorah readings (from the prophets).  
Ezra Reading the Scroll. Synagogue, Dura-Europos, Syria. 224 CE.
It is from the prophets that Jesus reads in Luke's gospel. The passage speaks of God's justice and freedom. It tells of good news and sight regained. It proclaims the year of the Lord's favor. Imagine, then, if the reading desk or pulpit is inaccessible for you as a reader. See how one congregation noted and addressed the reality of a reading desk that could be in itself a proclamation of good news and eyes opened, freedom for those who were captive and justice as God defines it. This article tells a story that may indicate that the year of the Lord's favor may not be as far away as we first thought. 

*Syria is still pretty far away from Jesus' hometown in the first century. Art&Faith Matters' FB page has a link to an article about archaeology in the areas where Jesus lived. See what has been discovered recently. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

John 2.1-11: Wedding Dinner...Chicken or Beef

Neither, actually. But we'll get to that. It is the miracle of changing water to wine that manifests Jesus as the Christ in the gospel reading of Epiphany 2C  (John 2:1-11). That is usually where consideration of the story ends. Perhaps a question is raised about the role of Mary, Jesus' mother in the story. But mostly, it's the water and the wine.

It's a hard moment to capture in a single painting.

Most depictions of this gospel passage tell us more about the wedding practices of the artist's time than they do about the scripture. If you do an image search for "wedding at Cana" or "marriage feast at Cana", you will see scenes with musicians (or not), long tables (or not), happy brides and grooms (or not). There will usually be a servant pouring liquid from one container to another or Jesus pointing to the jars to be filled with water. Jesus and Mary are often shown in "Biblical" clothes while the other guests are depicted in the fashion of the artist's day.

Italian painter Paolo Veronese created two versions of this story. The largest was created originally for the refectory of the Benedictine monastery on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Today, courtesy of Napoleon's troops, that work is in the collection of the Louvre in Paris. The size of the work allowed the artist to include details and subplots and references that can be lost in the mix of people. More than 125 guests attend the wedding feast. And on the table is...dessert.
Paolo Veronese. The Marriage Feast at Cana. 1563. 21' x 32.5'. Paris: Musee du Louvre.
The feast has progressed to dessert, and the lack of wine has been noted and addressed by Jesus, who occupies the center of the composition with his mother sitting on his right. The meal steward dressed in green stands to the left of the musicians and is balanced visually by the wine steward, in white brocade, who examines the wine in what is no doubt a Venetian glass. On plates before the guests are dates, grapes, quince and candied fruits. Contemporary dining theory advocated ending a meal with fruit and nuts, accompanied by a glass of wine to "seal the stomach". Soon the guests will offer a final toast (with excellent wine) to the happy couple (shown in the detail below, left) and leave the sumptuous banquet. 

Why, then, is the carver still busy? The meat courses have been served and cleared, but the cleaver is raised as the servant still works. Why?
The carver is, in fact, chopping lamb. He stands directly above Jesus, and serves as a reminder that this is not the only feast at which Jesus will be present. At the Last Supper, Jesus will again sit at a table. And in addition to his role as a worker of miracles, Jesus also has the role of the Lamb of God. It's a solemn reminder. Mary was anxious for her boy to be helpful, to shine here at this feast. But claiming his identity marks a significant step on the road that leads to Jerusalem.

The wedding at Cana in the style of Japanese prints? Absolutely! You can get to the artist's website via the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

God Turn All Things to the Best

The readings from Hebrew scripture and the gospel for Baptism of Christ C (Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-22) should remind us of the power of water. The waters of a baptismal service are usually manageable. A font, a bowl or a pool is filled. The waters are calm and controllable. We dip out the water to be poured or duck under the water in an organized fashion.

But there are times when we are reminded of the power of water. Currently the waters of the Mississippi River are flooding riverbanks and breeching levees from Illinois to Louisiana, and the soutthern locations are still seeing rising water. And unless you are in or near one of those places it's easy to remain unaware of what that looks like. 

One night in 1525, German artist Albrecht Durer dreamed about water. When he woke from the dream he attempted to put down in writing and capture in paint the image that had so frightened him in his dream. The image was this:
Albrecht Durer. Dream Vision. 1525. Watercolor on paper. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

In the painting, gigantic falls of water fill the sky. The landscape is dotted with trees and rises in the land. A towered city is in the distance. One plume of water has reached the earth, crashing into the horizon with deep blue color and creating an earth-bound cloud of water. Imagine the force of that water as it hits the earth. This is not a gentle rain that refreshes the earth.

Beneath the picture Durer wrote: “In the year 1525 between Wednesday and Thursday (7-8 June) after Whitsunday during the night I saw this appearance in my sleep, how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the earth about four miles away from me with a terrific force, with tremendous clamour and clash, drowning the whole land. I was so sore afraid that I awoke from it before the other waters fell. And the waters which had fallen were very abundant. Some of them fell further away, some nearer, and they came down from such a great height that they all seemed to fall with equal slowness. But when the first water, which hit the earth, was almost approaching, it fell with such swiftness, wind and roaring, that I was so frightened when I awoke that my whole body trembled and for a long while I could not come to myself. So when I arose in the morning I painted above here as I had seen it. God turn all things to the best.”

In Durer's vision the water was significant - even terrifying - enough that it caused him to think of God. Perhaps it also caused him to remember the promise of Isaiah's prophecy that rivers would not overwhelm and that in deep waters God would be there. Those are promises worth remembering on the occasion of Jesus' baptism and on every baptism celebrated in a family of faith. The waters of baptism can be deeper and more consuming that the basin or drops or carefully clear pool would suggest. And for each person who goes through those waters, we pray that God will turn all things to the best.