Monday, September 26, 2016

Psalm 137: We Hung Up Our Lyres

How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? That is the question the psalmist asks (or sings) in the lectionary psalm (Psalm 137) for Proper 22C/Ordinary 27C. The original setting was, of course, the exile in Babylon, which is mentioned in the psalm.

Israeli illustrator Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) used this text several times in his career. One illustration, a print depicts a German Art Nouveau interpretation of a realistic setting by the rivers of Babylon. Figures sit dejectedly, their lyres lying silently in their hands or by their side. In the background are trees whose branches are "decorated" with hanging lyres.
Ephraim Moshe Lilien. On the Rivers of Babylon (Plate 43). Etching and aquatint. 1910. 
Lilien's second example also uses trees and lyres, though there are no visible figures. The psalm is the source for the book cover illustration of "Lieder des Ghetto" ("Songs of the Ghetto"), a collection of songs by Morris Rosenfeld, the so-called "Poet Laureate of Labor." Though the collection was originally published in 1898, Lilien's illustrations were part of the 1920 edition in which the Yiddish originals were translated into German.  

Ephraim Moshe Lilien. Cover illustration for "Lieder des Ghetto." 1920. Poems by Morris Rosenfeld; translated by Berthold Feiwel. Berlin: Marquardt u. Co.
On the cover of the book is the willow tree on which hangs a lyre. The lyre's strings are broken, rendering the instrument unplayable. The background has a light cityscape at the bottom of the cover and rounds of thorns or barbed wire at the bottom of the willow trunk.

Babylon is not the only "strange land" in which God's people have found themselves...and found themselves wondering how to sing the songs of Yahweh. Even today there are all too many situations when we wonder about singing God's song in the strange lands in which we find ourselves. Perhaps those are the times we most need to sing.

For thoughts on Lamentations 1:1-6, click here.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Luke 16.19-31: Rock-a My Soul

There was a rich man. So begins the gospel reading for Proper 21C/Ordinary 26C (Luke 16:19-31). By the end of the text, though, being rich isn't going to help anything. Instead, it is a poor man named Lazarus, who probably knew little or no peace in his earthly life, who will find peace at the last. He will find peace because at his death he is carried away by the angels to be with...Abraham.

Yes, Abraham. We might know the concept as the "bosom of Abraham" (ohhhhh, rock-a my soul). The translation might be a bit misleading to our ears. The Greek term is kolpos, and it refers to the side or lap of a person. At the last supper, the beloved disciple reclines en to kolpo tou Iesou (in the bosom of Jesus...John 13:23). This place of repose was an honor and a favor.

The idea of Abraham welcoming the faithful who died is found in 4 Maccabees 13:17: For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us. (NRSV) The place to which the dead were welcomed was Gehenna (from the Hebrew Gehinnom, literally the valley of Hinnom), traditionally considered a place of punishment for the ungodly because of pagan practices in the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In scripture, the word for the place of punishment is Sheol, so Gehenna might be better characterized as a place of judgment. For those who had nothing judged against them, there was no punishment. So the bosom of Abraham was a place of happiness, though not perhaps perfect happiness. In the parable it is conceivable that Lazarus and the rich man are in the same general place. In the place where one goes after death, Lazarus finds rest, but the rich man is judged (and punished) for his earthly life.
Paradise with Jesus on the lap of Abraham. German. c. 1239. Tempera and gold leaf on vellum. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Over time, the bosom of Abraham became synonymous with Heaven itself. In the picture above, it is the infant Jesus who sits on the lap (in the bosom) of Abraham and both child and patriarch find themselves in Paradise. Clusters of dates are so plentiful that the branch bends down with the weight. Water comes from the four corners of the illustration. Paradise, indeed. It may be that the equating of Abraham's bosom with Paradise is seen in Matthew 8:11: I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. And some hear the promise of being in Abraham's bosom in Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross: you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).

For thoughts on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, click here.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Luke 16.1-13: Mammon

You cannot serve God and wealth. That's how the gospel reading for Proper 20C/Ordinary 25C (Luke 16:1-13) concludes in the NRSV. The KJV has another word at the end: mammon. We might infer what (or who) that is, but medieval Christians did not need to infer. Mammon was written about, painted and otherwise brought to life to show exactly how opposite and how unsuitable for worship was mammon.

The word itself is probably Aramaic, related to the Hebrew term 'aman (to trust). The figure of Mammon was described with almost gleeful disgust by Edmund Spenser in Book 2 of The Faerie Queene (his cave is near the mouth of the underworld...that's pretty clear). Mammon is a devil living in Hell in John Milton's Paradise Lost.
(Left) Evelyn de Morgan. The Worship of Mammon. 1909. Compton, Guildford, Surrey, England: The DeMorgan Foundation. (Right) George Frederick Watts. Mammon. 1884-1885. London: Tate Gallery. .
The figure of Mammon, above, is one of two figures in the painting. Against a deepening blue sky, a woman grasps the knee of the figure of Mammon, gazing up in adoration. Mammon holds a bag presumably filled with money, in his right hand, but the woman doesn't even spare a glance at the bag. She doesn't appear to be worshiping money as much as worshiping Mammon himself. Or perhaps it is that Mammon holds the bag out of reach of the woman and she never realizes that happiness (satisfaction?) is always out of reach if Mammon is the object of worship.

Watts' Mammon bears at least a passing resemblance to Jabba the Hutt. He sits on his throne with a nude young woman to his right and a young man under his feet. His throne, upholstered in red features two skulls as finials. His crown features gold coins and donkey ears, references to Midas in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Most know Midas from his "touch" that turned everything, including his daughter, into gold. Through Ovid's pen, we hear that Apollo gave Midas the donkey ears as a symbol of his stupidity because he preferred the music of Pan's pipes to Apollo's lyre.

You cannot serve God and Mammon, Jesus said. Neither of these two figures is appealing enough to make the thought of serving Mammon tempting.

For thoughts on Jeremiah 8.18-9.1, click here.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Luke 15.1-10: Woman's Ten Coins

One of Jesus' parables about lost things, the gospel reading for Proper 19C/Ordinary 24C (Luke 15:1-10) takes us into the world of women. In the second of the three parables, we find a woman who has lost a coin (between a shepherd who has lost a sheep and a father who has lost a son). For many depictions of the story the title could just as easily be "The Sweeping Woman". In those superficial illustrations the woman stands - or sometimes bends over for a closer look - as she works with her broom hoping to uncover the coin in the dirt floor. There is very little interpretation, though the illustration is fine, if repetitive.

Our assumption is that the woman is poor and that is why even a single coin is so important. We can imagine that she carefully tends her little hoard of coins, counting them often to double check that they are still where she left them, keeping them safe in a bag or other container in a safe place in her home. Her home is usually shown as simple and dominated by earthtones with baked brick walls and dirt floors. The woman's clothing is a plain tunic of fairly coarse material. Eugene Burnand's image (left) is typical in those details. Burnand has chosen not to show the sweeping woman but rather the woman who has had a successful search. She stands on the balcony of her home, and in her left hand she holds the long-sought coin, sharing her joy with friends and neighbors. We can imagine that what happens next is that the woman takes the coin back inside her house and carefully places it in its container with the other nine coins, tucked safely away.

But perhaps there is another way to consider this coin and this woman. What if the coins aren't kept tucked away? What if the coins are on display almost every day of this woman's life? In William Holman Hunt's painting "Bride of Bethlehem", the woman's coins are on display across her forehead and in her jewelry. This practice, where jewelry serves as the woman's "bank account" is common in Palestine, Turkey, Armenia and other areas in the Middle East. In some cases "coin" refers to flat disks of coin-sized silver rather than actual money coins. The pure silver could be exchanged for its value in money. Though there are also examples where actual coins are drilled and used on headdresses and jewelry. An Arab proverb says "Bracelets are for the difficult times." Presumably because one can sell them.

What if the ten coins are ornaments on the headdress of the woman in Jesus' parable? Certainly they would still be important, especially if she has only ten on her headdress - unlike the woman in Hunt's painting - but these coins would be part of her life, not just a stash that is hidden away. Perhaps she takes off the headdress at night and discovers broken threads or an open wire jump ring and an empty place where there should be a coin. And then she begins her search for the coin - remembering where the errands and tasks of her day have taken her and retracing her steps - perhaps even sweeping the floor - until the coin is found.

Imaging the ten coins as part of a headdress doesn't change the point of the parable - that the woman would look for a single coin, even if she had others. But it might change the way we imagine the woman and her life.

You can read a veritable inventory of women's jewelry in Isaiah 3:18-20ff.
Top: Eugene Burnand. The Lost Coin. Drawing. Illustration for "Les Paraboles", published in 1908.
Bottom: William Holman Hunt. The Bride of Bethlehem. 1884. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

For thoughts on lost sheep, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...Could the coin pictured here have been one of the ten coins mentioned in the parable?