Sunday, October 30, 2016

Past, Present and Future

The epistle and gospel readings, as well as the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 27C/Ordinary 32C move fluidly through time: past and present, present and future, all three together. Just as in the painting below.
David Bailly. Vanitas-Still Life with Self-Portrait of the Artist. 1651. Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands.

In the painting, a young man dominates the painting, a painter's stick in his right hand and his left hand on a portrait of an older man. On the table are various objects, typically used as symbols in vanitas paintings: a skull, an overturned glass, a snuffed candle, a pocket watch. Floating above them the setting are several soap bubbles which are fragile and easily popped. All symbolize the transience of life and, by extension, the passage of time.

But the painting plays with time in another way. The young man, the artist (this is, indeed, a self-portrait), looks at the viewer with his art tools around him. In addition to the stick, on the wall behind him are two as-yet-unused wooden palettes that one day will be smeared with his paints. But not yet. He anticipates the future.

Or maybe, actually, the paintings have been done. Because the smaller oval portrait on which the man's left hand rests is also a portrait of the artist. A portrait of a not-as-young artist. The viewer might believe that the artist is anticipating the future, until learning that the painter was 67 years old when this painting was done. So in reality the small portrait of the older man is the self-portrait of the artist at the time of the painting and the portrait of the younger man is remembering who he was in the past (about four decades in the past!). So the portrait that looks like present reality is in fact not. This is a painting about remembering rather than anticipating.

Haggai's message of past, present and future with God (1:15b - 2:9) has to do with the Temple: the glorious one they remember with tears in their eyes and the one they have barely begun (re)building. And as to the promised reordering of all things and the Kingdom of God among them, well that's a future that is probably almost impossible to believe given the devastation of their present.

The Christ-followers of Thessalonica (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17) are also concerned about the (coming) Day of the Lord. They are worried that the future event they have been anticipating has arrived...and they missed it! But, no, they are told. There are many things that will/must happen between their present and that future event. Don't you remember that I told you these things in the past when I was with you?

And in the gospel reading (Luke 20:27-38), Jesus responds to the trick question of the Sadducees - a question about marriage in the resurrection (remember that they didn't believe in resurrection anyway) - by drawing a distinction between this age and the age to come. The present age is one thing. The future age is another. And then he refers to the past: to Moses and Jacob and Isaac and Abraham.

It might be interesting to think how these ideas of time are particularly suited to this time of year. For some civilizations, this was the turning of the year and a specifically acknowledged moment when the past was remembered and the future was anticipated. The natural world stands at the beginning of a season about decay and death, even as we know that spring will come in the continued movement of the seasons. We remember saints of the past. We prepare for the coming winter. Youth. Age. Past, present, future. Fluid.

For additional thoughts on Haggai 1:5b-2:6, click here.

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