Sunday, December 25, 2016

Matthew 2.13-23: Rachel Continues to Weep

The story of the massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23...Christmas 1A) is a believable story. It is believable because what human beings are capable of doing (and are willing to do) to one another continues to mystify us as well as make us sad. Matthew's gospel quotes Jeremiah, which remembers Rachel, wife of Jacob (later called Israel), weeping for her children.

How many times is that idea re-enacted in the world? German artist Kathe Kollwitz not only saw her countrywomen offering their laments, she herself lamented. Kollwitz, who was the first female professor at the Prussian Academy, was forced to resign her faculty position when the Nazis rose to power. She was also forbidden to exhibit her art. The artist's son was killed in World War I, and a grandson was killed in World War II. She understood the heartache of both individual and collective Rachels.

Kollwitz created a print that captures the gutwrenching grief of every woman who weeps for their/her children. The print (below) is titled "Mother with Dead Child." Kollwitz created the work in 1903, long before the advent of WWI, so it is not specifically autobiographical nor is it only a truth in war. Whatever has happened, and it really doesn't matter what that is, the mother's desperate grief and continued focus on her child is clearly communicated in the composition. The mother's arms encircle her child, drawing the viewer to the place where the two faces meet. There is no pleasant landscape or other background distractions. We are forced to acknowledge this mother's loss.
 Kathe Kollwitz. Frau mit Totem Kind (Woman with dead child) 1903, 7th state, soft-ground etching and engraving with green and gold wash.
It would be nice if each time this story cycles through the lectionary, it is the case that fewer people know the story or can identify with its feelings. Unfortunately we see more and more women (and men!) mourning for their children. We see raw emotion as mothers call for justice for their children. This is not the overly sentimental mother and child that we often see in the Christmas season. This is real. And all too believable.

For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:13-23, click here.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Nativity: Outside

Shepherds, Sheep. Stars. Angels. Sky. People. Census. Crowds. Soldiers. There is a lot going on outside the stable. Lots of commotion. Lots of people. Lots of movement and activity. People going about their daily lives, living in many circumstances, dealing with situations of their own making and situations that have been thrust upon them by outside forces. Luke's gospel alludes to it in the gospel reading for Christmas (Luke 2:1-20).

We are usually focused on what is happening inside the manger, and Maurice Denis' painting of the nativity gives us the glow from within and the peek at the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus. But that part of the story doesn't occupy the majority of the picture space. So what happens in that picture space? How do we think about what is happening outside of the stable? Or do we even think about what is happening outside of the stable?

Both of the images below are available on the internet. Both are the same work of art, but look at the difference. What is happening outside the stable based on these images? It is mysterious and scary? Is it busy and loud? Are we even able to make sense of what is happening outside the stable? How do you talk about what is happening inside in relation to what is happening outside?
Maurice Denis. Nativity. Toulouse: Musee des Augustins.
Jesus was born into a context - into a particular moment in history, into a particular culture, into a particular situation. Things were happening outside the stable.

Jesus comes to us in our context - into our particular moment in history, into our particular culture, into our particular situation. Things are happening outside the stable.

How do we talk about what is happening outside in relation to what is happening inside?

On Facebook this week, the images for a video using the Christmas song "Some Children See Him." I was only able to post images (without the soundtrack) on FB. You can find the music file and run them together to see what I was going for. I do have the video with music as an mp4 file. Quality on the upload of the video to the blog was awful, and though I've tried everything I can think of, I've not been able to find another way to post it. So maybe it's not meant to be posted. The file is  11MB, but I think I can share that via email if you are interested.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Matthew 1.18-25: Joseph, Do Not Be Afraid

The tie between the Gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 4A is Matthew's quotation of the Isaiah reading: the young woman/virgin is with child/shall conceive and shall bear a son and (they) shall name him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:10-16/Matthew 1:18-25). The gospel writer quotes the prophet in order to reinforce the angel's assurance to Joseph in the minds and ears of the hearers. In the context of the gospel reading, the idea is presented in order to assure Joseph that he and Mary can be betrothed without any qualms.

Joseph is convinced by the angel's statement. So Joseph and Mary are engaged. Or betrothed. Or married.

It's an almost lost episode in the story. Luke gives the betrothal a couple of verses, but Matthew seems to let the angel's assurance imply that the ceremony (or ceremonies if betrothal and marriage are separated) occurs. Though not described in scripture, the subject is treated in art, usually with Mary and Joseph standing on either side of a church official. Mary's hand is outstretched and Joseph puts a ring on her finger. There is often an architectural setting - sometimes a quotation of the building in which the painting lives (as a means of making the scene more immediate and perhaps providing silent encouragement for all brides and grooms who are married in that church). In some versions the bride wears white; in others, she wears a red tunic with a blue cloak.
(Left) Raphael. The Marriage of the Virgin. 1504. Milan: Pinacoteca di Brera.  (Right) Tissot. The Betrothal of the Holy Virgin and Saint Joseph. 1886-1894. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum.
Both of the paintings above treat the subject of the marriage/betrothal of Mary and Joseph. Each is fabricated by the artist. Renaissance artist Raphael paints the holy couple standing in front of a central plan building reminiscent of Bramante's Tempietto in Rome, which was built in 1502. the building would have still be quite new when the painting was done in 1504. The composition employs severe one-point perspective and arranges the people in a semi-circle that echoes the architecture. The marriage ceremony seems to be less important in the composition that the artist's bravura demonstration of perspective. 

Tissot takes a completely different approach, concocting a scene filled with exotic detail that symbolizes the near eastern setting of the story. The bride and groom wear elaborately patterned garments and walk under a patterned canopy. Beneath their feet is a flower petal-strewn carpet. Sections of Roman (round) arches indicate the building in or near which the ceremony takes place.

In both images, there is a crowd and ceremony and onlookers and official blessing of this union. People are well-dressed and somber. Is this how you imagined the beginning of life together for this couple? What else is there to say about how artists have depicted this story? See  Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Isaiah 35.1-10: The Sign of the Crocus

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. So says the prophet Isaiah in the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3A (Isaiah 35:1-10).

Vincent Van Gogh. Basket of Crocus Bulbs. 1887. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.

The crocus is specifically mentioned in Isaiah as a result when the wilderness and dry land and desert rejoice. What would make a dry area like a desert rejoice? Rain. And that is indeed when crocuses appear in Israel.

The Winter Crocus (Crocus Hyemalis) grows after Israel's long, hot summer. It is among the earliest plants to bloom. The crocus isn't much of a sign as far as volume and height go. The plant is stemless and stands only 1"-3". Its value as a sign (and symbol) is in its ability to withstand the drought of summer and to sprout, sometimes in anticipation of the rain. When you see the crocus you know that the rains are coming. In an arid land, this is indeed a sign.

That's how it will be for the ransomed of the Lord who are returning to Israel. They are a sprout. There will be (re)building to do in the land. There will be land to be reclaimed. There is still work to do. But the sign - the small shoot of green - is there.

One of the questions we need to ask in this Advent season is whether we are able to see small green shoots for what they are. Are we so overwhelmed with a dry and arid landscape that we don't see - don't expect, don't even look for - the green shoots that are signs of return, renewal and the kingdom of God.

On Facebook this week: Van Gogh  mentions crocuses in a letter to his brother. To read it click here.
For thoughts on John in prison (Matthew 11:2-11), click here.