Monday, December 25, 2017

Isaish 61.10-62.3: Off the Top of Your Head

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. That is how the Christmas 1B reading from Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 61:10-62:3) ends. Crown and diadem. It's a parallelism like many others in scripture, especially in poetry: The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and those who live in it (Psalm 24:1). But is there a difference between crown and diadem? And do the choices of those words mean something for how we hear that scripture?
Two different words are used in the Hebrew. Crown is עֲטֶ֥רֶת, a feminine noun translated crown across scripture. The word for diadem is וּצְנִ֥יף, a masculine noun that is translated as diadem, hood, mitre, even turban. The root of both concepts is the same as that for the English words: something worn on, around, or across a person's head. Crown is from the Latin corona "crown," originally "wreath, garland," related to Greek korone "anything curved, kind of crown." Diadem is directly from Latin diadema "cloth band worn around the head as a sign of royalty," from Greek diadema, from diadein "to bind across," from dia- "across" with dein "to bind," related to desmos "band".

Crown, diadem, tiara (headdress worn by Persian kings and by men of rank, from Latin tiara, from Greek tiara, of unknown origin)...who doesn't want one of those? Napoleon Bonaparte decided to give himself a crown. He had demanded the Pope attend the coronation ceremony as Emperor, but when the moment came to put the crown on his head, Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head. The sketch here was drawn by Jacques Louis David, who attended the coronation and created finished paintings of other episodes of Napoleon's rise to Emperor.
J.-L. David. Napoleon Crowning Himself Emperor. 1805. Drawing. Paris: Musee du Louvre.
There is one not-so-small detail in the scripture that is worth noting. The crown isn't something that the people of God get. It is something the people of God are. The crown - a very visible sign of someone of rank and power isn't going to be ours in this text. We might have expected that with the early verses that described festive wedding attire. We would wear a garland...we would wear a crown. But that is not the case. Instead we - the people of God - will be God's crown. 

Isaiah describes a number of attributes of the time when God's people become God's crown: there is righteousness (tsedakah, translated vindication) paired by turn with salvation and praise. All is right on that day. God's gifts have transformed the world in such a way that everyone can see, and from what God has planted have grown righteousness and praise - the righteousness and praise of the people of God. That's when we are a crown in God's hand. 

At the end of any year, we tend to look back at where we have been and look around at the world as it is now. When we reflect on our own actions, are we seeking crowns for ourselves or are we working to transform this world according to God's will? Do our actions reflect the righteousness (definitely not the same as self-righteousness) that God has planted in our world? Are righteousness and praise of God spring forth in this world? When they do, then we will be a crown in God's hand.

For two considerations appropriate for the Epistle reading for Christmas 1B (Galatians 4:4-7) and the turning of the year, click here or on the Facebook link below.

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Christmas 1B (Luke 2:22-40), click here.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas: It was, then, not a dream

The story is so familiar. Luke's gospel tells of the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. It has been depicted countless times. But every version nuances the story in a particular way.

The version here is by American artist and illustrator N.C.Wyeth. Known for his illustrations for books like Treasure Island and Robin Hood, Wyeth also provided illustrations for short stories in magazines like Scribner's and Woman's Day and for products like Coca-Cola. The illustration here was one of two Wyeth illustrations that accompanied "The Stable of the Inn" in the December 1912 issue of Scribner's (Vol. LII, No. 6).

The short story, by Thomas Nelson Page, opens with Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem. The first illustration shows the couple on a rest stop, where they first encounter the shepherds they will see again. The second illustration is this: a scene in a cave where animals are stabled. But rather than a home for animals and feed, this stable is the birthplace of a baby who casts a most remarkable light.
Wyeth has made light the most pronounced and unique detail in this telling of the story. The light closest to the baby is white light. In the physics of light, white light is created by the presence and full blending of all wavelengths on the visible spectrum. Each wavelength is a different color of light.  The collection of colors becomes visible when the light passes through a prism and the wavelengths are fractured into their different lengths (colors).

Moving out from the baby in Wyeth's painting, the light blends from one color of the visible spectrum to another. Warm yellow becomes orange before changing again to a red. From red the light becomes red-violet before transitioning into violet and blue-violet, edging into the blue of the dawn outside the cave. Many color.

In this season of the year, the length of days has just turned. The shortest day of the year gives way (today!) to a day where the sun shines just a little bit longer today than it did yesterday. And it will shine a little longer each day. In this season of holy days, our candles offer light to a world that walks in darkness, and we wait for the light to shine on us. It is not a dream. It is a sign.

For additional Christmas blog posts, click here.
For additional Facebook thoughts, click here  or here 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16: Building or Growing

David wants to build a house for God. After all, God's people are settled in their land. God - who tabernacled with the people in the wilderness - should get to settle down, too. That's where we find ourselves in the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3B (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16). The "Who's on First" nature of the conversation reveals two different approaches to establishing a house.

David intends to build God a house. A grand temple. A cathedral. Ultimately his son will be the one to do that, but David has the intention. Bricks, mortar, stone, doors, doorposts, a roof. David wants to construct a building appropriate for the God of creation. It's how humans think.

God has a different thought. God will create the house of David through growth - children, grandchildren, and, ultimately, a baby born to Mary and her husband Joseph (who was of the house and lineage of David).

The ultimately-constructed house for God is a visual for another day. The house of David that is grown by God finds familiar form in the Advent season: the Jesse Tree. Jesse, the father of David is usually depicted at the root of the tree (see Isaiah 11:1...A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots). On the Jesse Tree are images or symbols of the descendants of David, who are also the ancestors of Jesus: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk. The Jesse Tree also looks back to earlier Biblical characters: Moses, Ruth, Gideon, Noah, Rahab.

Shown here are two different artistic visions of the Tree of Jesse. The top image is a 12th-century stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral in France. Jesse is at the root with a series of humans sit on the trunk of the tree (like Zacchaeus, maybe?), proceeding in an orderly fashion up to Jesus who sits at the top of the tree with a dove descending on his head. The tree shape is reminiscent of a pine or palm or other tree with a straight trunk and less emphasis on branches. No doubt the design was influenced by the space available in the lancet window of the Gothic cathedral.

The bottom image is a Netherlandish one attributed to the circle of artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans dated c. 1500. Jesus' ancestors are perched on tree branches in a variety of poses: kneeling, standing, ankles crossed, with a falcon on one arm. The figures are dressed in striped hose and embroidered tunics that probably have more in common with the kings of Geertgen's day than with those of Jesus' or David's day. The top of Geertgen's tree is crowned with a blond Mary holding a blond baby Jesus on her lap.

"I will make you a house," David says to God.
"No," God says, "I will make you a house."
David would have built.
God chose to grow.

For Chartres Cathedral, click here. For the circle of Geertgen Tree of Jesse (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum), click here.

For another architectural element that links the ideas of buildings and David and the infant Christ, see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. 

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Advent 3B (Luke 1:26-38), click here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Isaiah 61.1-11: Future, No Future

The prophet Isaiah is speaking of the year of the Lord in the reading for Advent 3B (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11). God's spirit has landed on the prophet with instruction to bring good news, to bind up, to proclaim liberty and release. It's good news, concluding with praise and exultation. And who would expect anything else? Expecting all those good things is as natural as dressing up for a wedding, or seeing marigolds grow where marigold seeds were planted.

Isaiah's imagery is vivid. We feel the joy of release and liberty. We touch the roughness of the oak tree and understand its power. We hear the hum of machinery as buildings are rebuilt. We don't smell the lingering acridness of ashes, instead we smell the freshness of a laurel wreath.

Well, that's what Isaiah says. Caspar David Friedrich uses some of the same elements as Isaiah but tells a different story in his painting Abbey in the Oakwood. The painting, like many of Friedrich's, has humans and human-made elements in small proportion to the size of the painting. The majority of the canvas is filled with the vastness of nature.

The mood of the painting is opposite that of the Isaiah reading. "Good news" does not appear to be immanent in this scene. There are mourners in the picture: a line of figures, perhaps monks, are walking toward the graveyard where a newly dug grave is a gash in the earth. There is no oil of gladness anywhere in sight. The ancient ruins (these are presumably Gothic ruins, which were the fashion centuries before Friedrich painted) are not being rebuilt. There are oaks, but they are dormant for winter, if not dead. They are not the best representatives of God's glory
Caspar David Friedrich. Abbey in the Oakwood. 1809-1810. Berlin: Nationalgalerie.
A consensus interpretation of all these elements is uncertain. There seems to be agreement on the prominence of death as a theme, but is it the death of the old ways, the death of the church, the death of Germany or even the death of the artist? About this painting Friedrich wrote: Now I am working on a great picture in which I intend to depict the secrets of the grave and the future [...] Below, with snow-covered tombs, and burial mounds, are the remains of a Gothic church, surrounded by ancient oaks. The sun has set, and in the twilight the sun rises above the ruins, the evening star and the moon the first quarter. Thick fog covers the earth, and, even if one clearly sees the upper part of the masonry, the forms, downwards, ever more uncertainly, and indefinitely become the forms, until at last everything, the nearer the earth, is mistaken."(quoted in: H Börsch-Supan, Berlin 1810, in: Kleist Yearbook, Berlin 1987, p. 75).

Though difficult to see, there are two small lights, presumably candles, behind the crucifix in the church ruin. These two small points of light may be a sign of a future and a hope, but they are such a small part of this pictorial world. Are those two small candles enough to proclaim that there is a future? Did Isaiah's audience feel even those two candles' worth of hope as they said good-bye to Jerusalem? Can such small moments of hope and future carry any of us today who look around the world and understand that all is not well?

For an image of hope and future that is both Friedrich and Isaiah, click here or on the Facebook link below.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Advent 3B, click here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11: The Road

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 2B is a familiar reading from the prophet Isaiah. In the text, the subject, perceived by some as literal and by others as metaphorical, is road-building. The landscape is to be leveled so that a way for the Lord can be made. Low-lying places are to be raised. High ground is to be flattened. Stony patches are to be smoothed out.

Such accomplishments are expected in modern road-building. A drive today through mountains requires fewer hairpin turns that find a car and its passengers clinging to the edge of a precipice. Today's interstate highways are multi-lane, comfortably wide, and carved through mountains rather than ascending and descending the full height of the mountain.

The commonness of contemporary road quality was not always the case. The 1375 Catalan Atlas includes the image of a group of travelers on the Silk Road. Identified as both a generic caravan and Marco Polo and his traveling party, the travelers ride horses along the road that ran connected East and West, making trade possible. The cartographer, Abraham Cresques, has drawn a stony roadbed along which mounted and walking travelers make their way.
Abraham Cresques. Catalan Atlas. 1375. Bibliotheque Nationale. Paris, France. 
The so-called Silk Road is actually a network of trade routes rather than a single road. Other well-known roads connected to or intersected and were part of the network as well. One of those other roads was the Persian Royal Road, which ran from Susa to the Aegean Sea - more than 1600 miles. Alexander the Great used the road built by Darius I. A series of relay stations equipped with fresh horses made it possible to cover the route that crossed the Persian Empire within days rather than months. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the royal messengers who rode this route that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Why did God need a road? In the ancient near East it was common practice for images of gods to be paraded through the streets and along royal roads (read Isaiah 46:7 for a description of one such procession). For the nation of Israel, however, the road is prepared not for an inert statue. Rather it is prepared for the God who has created the world and moves in it. The "new thing" that Israel is about to experience won't be important because it highlights the efforts of human laborers (or divine beings!) as they build a road. The "new thing" is because the God who moves will once again enter into the life of the nation and in that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. And all people will see it together.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Advent 2B, click here.

Find out about another road through the Middle East on this week's Facebook post

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Isaiah 64.1-9: Rain, Steam, Speed

The words of the prophet Isaiah are featured the first three weeks of Advent in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. For Advent 1B, the specific text is Isaiah 64:1-9. In this passage Isaiah prays that God will tear open the heavens, come down, and perform the awesome deeds for which God is known. Those awesome deeds seems more frightening than comforting: the ground shakes, nations tremble. The prophet offers the descriptive parallel of water made hot enough to boil. The combination might truly be terrifying.

Though it does not especially look like it, English painter J.M.W. Turner captured an experience that was literally as ground-shaking as the prophet calls for. The painting Rain, Steam, Speed captures a time when the railroad was changing England. Where development of cities and civilization had previously required access by navigable waters, the railroad made it possible for industry to develop in non-waterside locations. Goods and people could be transported by the railroad. But Turner gives the train more symbolism than that.
J.M.W. Turner. Rain, Steam, Speed. c. 1844. London: National Gallery. 
For Turner, the train tears through the landscape, a dark gash against blue and gold. The bridge and train separate a man in a boat on the river (to the left of the bridge) from a farmer plowing his field (to the right of the bridge). At the left is the increasingly irrelevant road bridge that crosses the river. The boat is powered by the man; the plowing is powered by the animals. The train, of course, is powered by steam. Small bits of red and white paint on the engine are not realistic - there was no way to see through to the engine's firebox. But those paint smudges symbolize the fire that burns, causing water to boil and turn to steam which is harnessed, powering the locomotive.

The train thunders across a bridge (traditionally identified as the Maidenhead railway bridge, across the Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead). Passengers sit in open-air cars behind the engine. They can feel the mist of the steam and the rain as they travel at 50 heart-stopping, breathtaking miles an hour.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Mountains quaking, fire kindling, water boiling. And God's presence is known. Heart-stopping. Breathtaking.

You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

One of the details that easily escapes notice in the painting is the rabbit. Yes, there is a rabbit. It is running directly in front of the train. What exactly does the hare mean? Is nature going to be vanquished - or at least forced to succumb to "progress"? Is technology about to run over the rabbit? Have we been delivered into the hand of our iniquity? Or is the rabbit still faster than the train? Can we see it as God working for those who wait for God?
Rain. Steam. Speed. Torn heavens and quaking earth. Kindled fire and boiling water. And the first Sunday as we wait for the God who is to come. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

For thoughts on the gospel lesson for Advent 1B, click here.
For additional thoughts on the impact of steam and the earth, click here or on the Facebook link below.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24: The Persistence of Sheepery

Reign of Christ marks the last Sunday in the lectionary year. The next week we start a new liturgical year and a new lectionary year (B). For this final Sunday in A, the reading from Hebrew scripture returns to the world of...sheep (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24).

Through the year, scripture tells of lost and found sheep, of sheep gone astray, and of sheep in God's pastures. In hundreds of references, sheep have been held up as models and examples. Sometimes good examples, sometimes not so much. Sheep have been stand-ins for the people of God. They have been described as "without blemish". They have been sacrifice and economic source. They have been the means of atonement and the main course at the feast. They have been tithe of the people and practice for future kings. They have been everywhere.

And now the year ends...with sheep. Most folks may think more of bones than of sheep when considering the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, but God's message here is every bit as life-affirming as the moment with the dry bones. The affirmation is possible mostly because the scripture passage isn't so much about the sheep as about the shepherd.

God says: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.

And that is how the liturgical year ends: with the shepherd gathering the flock. Scattered, hungry, lost, the sheep are gathered again, are fed, and are rested by God who is their shepherd. Maybe that is the best way to end a year: remembering that though human beings may perpetually be sheep, God has promised to be our shepherd.

The illustration is by German-born illustrator Michael Sowa. Exact source of the illustration is unknown. Sowa has illustrated Sowa's Ark: An Enchanted Bestiary and illustrated A Bear Called Sunday and The Little King December. His movie credits include Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Amelie. His work is available in posters and card on the internet. 

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Reign of Christ A, click here.  
For news from the art world (which is related to the themes of the Reign of Christ), click here (which should take you directly to the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Matthew 25.14-30: It's the Dog

The gospel reading for Proper 28(33)/Pentecost 24A is a parable. Specifically, it is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The master entrusts three servants with eight talents before he goes on a trip. When the master returns, he asks for an accounting of the money. Two of the three servants have multiplied the master's money. The third, described as worthless, is cast out.

Various artistic versions of the subject include additional figures (a bookkeeper, for example) and interesting settings (contemporary with the artist's time, for example). Swiss artist Eugene Burnand has used only the four men mentioned in the text and has set the parable in a classic, but timeless, setting. Between the three columns evenly spaced behind the men, are lightly drawn leaves, branches and landscape.

The three servants face the master. One servant holds a fully filled bag in his hands, presumably the original talents given him along with the additional profit he turned. A second servant stands behind him. We don't see his hands or his accounting or much of anything from him. The third servant, however, telegraphs his suspicion - or perhaps resentment? - of the master by watching from under a lowered brow as he stands with his arms crossed over his chest.

The master stands at the left of the composition with his right hand outstretched, preparing to reach for the money that is coming to him. The artist has made the master slightly taller than the first servant, but the gulf in the relationship is painted as horizontal rather than vertical. The composition doesn't reinforce a hierarchical imbalance of power as it would have if the master towered over kneeling servants.

One rather unique detail of Burnand's telling of the story is the dog in the composition. The dog is between the master and the servants. It appears that the dog has walked in with the master, whose left hand rests on the dog's head. The dog has stopped slightly ahead of the master and is looking up and back and the older man. Why is the dog there? Is the dog just another "good and faithful servant" to the master? "Fido" does, of course, share a root with the word for faithful. Is the dog there as a character reference for the master? The dog is looking up at the master with an expression that seems to be one of calmness and trust rather than cowering and fear. Remember the advice to never trust a person who doesn't love dogs, but always trust a dog when they don't like a person. Is this dog there to say that this master - for all his demands for profit and casting out into places where teeth are gnashed - can be trusted?

Image above: Eugene Burnand (1850-1921). The Talents. For Musee-Eugene-Burnand, click here
For thoughts related to the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.
For an additional image of Deborah, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Matthew 25.1-13: How to Stay Awake

Keep awake, for you do not know the day or the hour. That's Jesus' parting line in the gospel reading for Proper 27A(32A)/Pentecost 23A (Matthew 25:1-13). How do you keep awake? Count sheep? Drink coffee? Set an alarm to go off regularly?

The ancient writer Pliny, in The Natural History (Book X. Chapter 30), writes: "During the night, also, they (cranes) place sentinels on guard, each of which holds a little stone in its claw: if the bird should happen to fall asleep, the claw becomes relaxed, and the stone falls to the ground, and so convicts it of neglect. The rest sleep in the meanwhile, with the head beneath the wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other: the leader looks out, with neck erect, and gives warning when required."

Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds. Southern England (Salisbury?). Harley 4751 fol. 39. 2nd quarter of the 13th century. London: British Library.
In the manuscript illustration, the sentry bird is the only one with eyes open. As described by Pliny, the sleeping cranes are each standing on one leg, though all five birds have their heads above their bodies. This is not the case in the manuscript illumination below, where all the birds have "craned" their necks. The sentry crane looks up, while the sleeping cranes have tucked their heads under their wings. The sleeping cranes here are standing on two feet. The sentry crane holds the stone in its claw. 
Bestiary. Manuscript (Sloane MS 3544). 1225-1275. London: British Library.
Pliny's description echoes Aristotle's text from several centuries earlier. In History of Animals, Aristotle writes: When they settle down, the main body go to sleep with their heads under their wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other, while their leader, with his head uncovered, keeps a sharp look out, and when he sees anything of importance signals it with a cry (Book IX.X.).

Who are the people we might identify as our "sentry cranes"? They are the ones who remain awake even as the rest of us sleep. They are the ones who cry out to warn us of impending danger.

For thoughts on the gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For another tie between cranes and a gospel story on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, click here.. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017


The gospel reading for Proper 26A(31A)/Pentecost 22A is Jesus' teaching, both to his disciples and to the crowd. The passage (Matthew 23:1-12) is filled with images that contrast what people of faith say and what they do. And that lack of consistency makes them bad role models, Jesus reminds his hearers. Wearing t-shirts with religious messages or listening to the radio station that plays religious music doesn't matter if by their actions they are unwilling to help their neighbor. In verse 4 the behavior is given specificity: They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Architecturally, the figure who bears weight is called a caryatid (if a female figure) or a telamon (if a male figure). These figures are also called atlas, atlantes or atlantids (referring to the mythological figure of Atlas who carries the weight of the sky on his shoulders). Visually these figures bear the weight of whatever architectural element is above them. The most famous caryatids are those on the Erectheum on Athens' acropolis. Vitruvius, the Roman architectural writer, helped coin the name caryatids, saying that the figures represented the women of Caryae. According to Vitruvius, when the Persians invaded Greece in the 5th century BCE, the town of Caryae sided with the Persians. When the Persians were defeated, the women of Caryae were forced to carry heavy burdens for the victors. These stone women, eternally bearing the weight of the porch entablature are the symbolic descendants of the women of Caryae. Though Vitruvius' account is less widely accepted as truth today, it shaped the history of meaning of this architectural form.
Caryatids on the Erectheum. Athens, Greece.
So when Auguste Rodin begins sculpting in the nineteenth century, the story of the caryatid is of a female form carrying a heavy burden. Though these are free-standing sculptures, a smaller version is part of Rodin's Gates of Hell. This crouching figure gradually acquired the descriptive title of "Fallen Caryatid". 
Left: Rodin. Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone. Modeled 1881, cast 1981. 
Right: Rodin. Fallen Caryatid Carrying an Urn. Modeled 1883, cast 1981.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his volume on Rodin wrote about the caryatid:
The Caryatid is no more the erect figure that bears lightly or unyieldingly the heaviness of the marble. A woman's form kneels crouching as though bent by the burden the weight of which sinks with a continuous pressure into all the figure's limbs. Upon every smallest part of this body the whole stone lies like the insistence of a will that is greater older and more powerful a pressure which it is the fate of this body to continue to endure. The figure bears its burden as we bear the impossible in dreams from which we can find no escape. Even the sinking together of the failing figure expresses this pressure and when a greater weariness forces the body down to a lying posture it will even then still be under the pressure of this weight bearing it without end. Such is the "Caryatid." (Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1919, p. 52) 

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others. And sometimes the burden is just too much to bear. If we want to be other than the people Jesus condemns, we should probably be working on ways to help carry someone else's burden rather than forcing other people to carry burdens of our making.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Joshua3:7-17) for this week in the lectionary, click here.

This week on Facebook, Art&Faith Matters considers the concluding verse of the gospel reading. Click on the Facebook link (on the blog page) below.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Psalm 90: Contemporary Art: Made Last Week

For generations you have been our home. That's the opening line of the song that is Psalm 90. The psalmist sings of the longevity of God and of God's relationship with the people (Psalm 90:1-4, 13-17, Proper 25A[30]/Pentecost 21A). We think of things that are passed down from generation to generation: land, jewelry, books. Television shows like "Antiques Roadshow" are often filled with stories of a great-great-grandparent's belonging that has been passed down through the family. Henry Louis Gates' show "Finding Your Roots" discovers stories and characters on family trees, sometimes going back six, seven or more generations. "Generations" means years, decades, centuries. God has been our home for a long time, sings the psalmist.

But, then, longevity isn't really that amazing a "thing" when you yourself are "from everlasting to everlasting." Trying to help us grasp the idea of longevity when considered in light of God, the psalmist continues singing that "a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night." Just to help you understand the musical concept, if a thousand years is like a day, then the work below is contemporary art, made about a week ago.
Deep Halaf bowl. 6000-5000 BCE. London: British Museum.
Actually, it does look reasonably contemporary, though it actually dates to at least 5000 BCE. That's about 7,000 years ago...or a week where a thousand years is a day. Imagine all that has been seen, done, discovered, and realized since this pot was made in northern Mesopotamia.

The span of time that is so vast to us, is the blink of an eye to God. As we read elsewhere in scripture, God does not see as humans see.

For thoughts on the Exodus reading about Moses and God on Mount Nebo, click here.

For consideration of a work that was made about an hour ago (according to Psalm 90 time-keeping) click on the Facebook link at the bottom of the blog page.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Matthew 22.15-22: Who You Look Like

And they brought him a denarius. "They" are those Pharisees who were trying to trap Jesus. Someone pulled a coin out of a pocket, and everyone leaned in to take a new look at what was probably a reasonably familiar object. That's the moment in the story when everyone holds their breath waiting to see what happens next. That's the gospel reading for Proper 24(29)A/Pentecost 20A (Matthew 22:15-22).

Jesus neatly answers the Pharisees trick question. If it looks like Caesar, it belongs to Caesar. If it looks like God, it belongs to God. The image on the coin looked like Caesar. All the Caesars marked their rise to caesar-hood by putting their own image on the coins of the realm. And don't forget that Palestine in the time of Jesus was very much in the realm of the Roman empire. 

If the coin looks like the emperor, then it belongs to the emperor.
For more on the Mount Zion Archaelogical Dig, see this blog by one of the dig's directors and this site about the dig.
In the fall of 2016, a rare gold coin (above) was found in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. The coin, dated around 56 or 57 CE, bore the image of the Roman emperor Nero, best known for his cruelty, tyranny, and being emperor when Rome burned. It was Nero who sent Vespasian to Jerusalem in the year 67 to squash a rebellion. Only a couple of years later Nero would commit suicide, and Vespasian would be the last one standing in a year that saw four Roman emperors. Emperor Vespasian would send his son Titus to oversee the military campaign that ended in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Those are the things that look like the emperor...and therefore belong to the emperor.

Several things are especially remarkable about the finding of this coin. First, its location is known and documented. Knowing the coin's location helps piece together the story of the journey of the coin. Second, because the coin is gold it has not decayed. This image of this emperor is still visible today, millennia after his death.

So now the things that look like God...well, they belong to God. And just what is it that looks like God?

When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Exodus 33:12-23), click here.

For thoughts on the epistle reading (Thessalonians 1:1-10), click on the Facebook link below. To see the FB link, you will need to go to the blog post.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Phlilppians 4.1-9: Of Myrrh, Peace and Rejoicing

The peace of God which passes all understanding. That's what is promised to those who do not worry about anything, but by prayer and supplication let their requests be made known to God [Philippians 4:1-9, Proper 23(28)A/Pentecost 19A]. One of the phrases that may be the most meaningful to us today is "which passes all understanding."

After all, the idea that we could look at today's world and not worry seems beyond understanding. Neighbor is taking up - if not always sword - then certainly verbal weapons against neighbor. God's good creation is suffering from neglect and abuse. There is refusal to bear one another's burdens (and sometimes the refusal to bear our own burdens). As Jesus stood and looked over Jerusalem and wept, so we look over our world and weep. For what has already been lost, and for what is being lost right now.

People are often in situations that seem to be incongruent with celebration when they are told to rejoice in scripture. Rejoicing in such situations requires a knowledge - a faith - in something beyond what is visible. And it might be knowledge - faith - that is hard to help someone else understand.

The Orthodox liturgical calendar includes Holy Myrrhbearers Sunday. A hymn (kontakion) for that day includes the text: When you said to the Myrrh-bearers, "Rejoice!", O Christ our God, You ended, by Your Resurrection, the lament of Eve, the first mother. And, You commanded Your Apostles to proclaim, "The Savior has risen from the grave."

Imagine the women going to the tomb, bearing spices so that Jesus would have the honor of a full burial. The image below is by Robert Anning Bell shows six women led in procession by Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the tomb. The cool blue tone of the painting and the frozen movement of the women emphasize the somberness of the scene. For this day, for these women, there are no bright colors, no warm sunshine. At this moment there is seems to be no prospect for rejoicing.
Robert Anning Bell. The Women Going to the Sepulchre. 1912. Collection of the Royal Academy, London. For more information, see:
Many followers of Jesus have seen days where they could not imagine rejoicing. And yet Paul commands the Christians in Philippi to rejoice in the Lord always. He even repeats the instruction: "Again, I will say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). Can we do as Paul instructed, even as we look at our world? Can we Rejoice in the Lord...always? Even when we are carrying myrrh? Can we continue to, by prayer and supplication - even "battering the gates of heaven" with our prayers, let our requests be made known to God and then live in a peace that passes understanding? It may be one of the harder things we are to do as followers of Jesus the Christ.

For thoughts on the Exodus passage about the golden calf, click here.

Which is more embarrassing...dressing incorrectly for a wedding or manhandling a guest? Click on the Facebook link below to see a possible interpretation of the Gospel reading for Proper 23(28)A?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Philippians 3.4b-14: Paul Says 'Not This'

The Epistle reading for Proper 22(27)A/Pentecost 18A is a familiar section of Paul's letter to the Philippians (3:4b-14): Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

It's a truth that saying 'yes' to one thing means saying 'no' to other things. If we say 'yes' to Paul's example, then (I regret to say) we must say no to emulating one in the pantheon of Roman gods. Paul's focus on the goal that is ahead renders us unable to follow the model of Janus, the two-faced god who looks forward and backward. While there are often equivalents in the Greek and Roman pantheons, the Greeks had no parallel for Janus.

Usually shown with two faces - with one he looks forward and with the other he looks back - Janus is the god of transitions and beginnings. January has a linguistic root with Janus, though the question of  whether the month is named for the god has not been definitively answered. Nevertheless, January, the first month of our year is at a moment of transition.

The presence of ceremonial gateways (jani) throughout Rome reinforced the opportunity to make favorable beginnings by walking through these janus gates. A shrine to Janus was located in the Roman forum. The two doors to the shrine were open when Rome was at war and closed when Rome was at peace.

Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello included a two-faced, Janus-type figure in one panel of the so-called Passion Pulpit in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The pulpit is covered with bronze relief images of the episodes of Christ's passion. In this panel Christ appears before Pilate. As Pilate sits on his raised throne, the servant offers him a bowl of water with which to wash his hands of Jesus. The figure may symbolize Pilate's inner conflict or perhaps it is a reminder that Pilate will not be able to separate past and future: his reputation in the future will, for Christians, be defined by his actions here. Jesus said it before - no one can serve two masters - but perhaps Pilate is trying to do just that.

Paul is having none of this. Forgetting what lies behind, Paul presses forward, his eyes only on the goal of the call of God in Christ Jesus. There is no room for Janus in Paul's faith.

Top image: Janus head on Roman Republic coin. 225-214 BCE. Gold. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
Second from top: Bust of Janus. Vatican Museums.
Bottom two images: Donatello. Christ Before Pilate (full panel and detail of area in white circle). Relief sculpture from Passion Pulpit. 1460-1465. Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 22(27)A, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page: a look at vineyards in Israel. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

World Communion Sunday: A Host of Breads and Circuses

The first Sunday in October is celebrated by some Christian denominations as World Communion Sunday. Originating in the 1930s, out of the Division of Stewardship at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, the day was meant to unite Christians around the world as everyone came to Christ's table. The day, first called Worldwide Communion Sunday by Shadyside pastor Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, was slow to grow. It was during World War II that more congregations and denominations caught the spirit of the day as they sought to unite a fragmented, divided and warring world.

The provision of bread is found throughout scripture as a demonstration of God's providence and care: from Abraham's and Sarah's baked cakes offered to three strangers to Christ's breaking of bread with the pilgrims at Emmaus, from the unleavened bread of the Passover to the institution of the Lord's Supper by Paul. God provides the gift of daily manna in the wilderness, and Jesus provides his followers with the example of praying for "our daily bread".

Bread, in all its flavors and forms, is a dietary staple around the world. Breads are made with local grains in varying proportions. Some breads are long, skinny loaves. Others are round, ball-shaped loaves. Crusts can be thick and golden or crackly and crunchy. Chewy sourdough or fluffy sandwich bread. The varieties of bread are endless.

Bread has also been used by nations and governments as a symbol of their own providence, as a rallying cry for patriotism, as a criticism of others, as a call to sacrifice, as a tool for political control. The Roman poet Juvenal criticized the Roman citizens of his day (c. 100 CE) as having abandoned their historic civic duties and caring only for "bread and circuses" (panem et circenses) - the free grain and populist entertainments that were the means of acquiring political power in his day. As we observe World Communion Sunday 2017, consider the messages and meanings of the posters below in their own time and in ours.

Posters top to bottom:
World War I home front poster. Don't Waste Bread. UK.
1938 poster for General Franco's nationalists. Por La Patria El Pan Y La Justicia (For the Nation, Bread and Justice). Spanish. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
1932 election poster for German National Socialist Party. Work and Bread for all. Vote National Socialist. Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive #2/42/155.)

World War II poster. Economisez... (Save the bread. Cut it into thin slices...and use all the crust for soups.) France.

Did you know there is a Museum of Bread Culture?

Find a reflection on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 21(26)A/Pentecost 17A here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, an ancient image for World Communion Sunday. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Matthew 20.1-16: Vineyard Work

Is it propaganda? Absolutely. Which doesn't make it a necessarily wrong interpretation. Just an advantageous one. The gospel reading for Proper 20(25)A/Pentecost 16A is Matthew 20:1-16. In that text Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who pays wages by the person rather than by the hour.

In the parable, four different groups of workers are hired, and the group hired last - just before quitting time - is paid the same wages as the group that started work at sunup. Is that fair? No, according to the early bird workers.

The early workers, the older brother from the prodigal son story...probably most of us can understand how it feels to have given everything you had, done everything you thought was right only to find yourself on what you perceive as the unfair end of the deal. However, most of us have also probably been the recipient of some grace along the way.

That's what Lucas Cranach the Younger was painting in his work "The Vineyard of the Lord": grace. Or folks who had received some of it anyway. The parable is transported to 16th-century Germany in this interpretation of the story. The vineyard is planted on a hill; the workers are industrious. But the workers on the left, Roman Catholic clergy and religious, are exhausting the ground and proving to be poor caretakers of the vineyard. At the conclusion of their day, they march out of the vineyard, following the Pope. In contrast, on the right, leaders of the Protestant Reformation - including Martin Luther - provide loving care for the vineyard. Below them, at bottom right, is Paul Eber and his family (including thirteen children, those who died as infants are dressed in white). Eber was a theology professor, hymn writer, and Bible translator. At his death in 1569, his children commissioned the painting as a memorial. The artist chose the theme.

At the left lower corner, the Lord of the vineyard comes to pay the wages to the workers. First paid are the Pope and his workers. The Pope holds a coin in his hand and appears to be asking for more. The Lord of the vineyard holds up his hand, rejecting the demand for additional wages.

The painting is propaganda. Martin Luther clears the ground with a rake in the center of the composition. Other Reformers (all identifiable) work beside him. They are the ones who came late to work but were given the same pay as those who worked a full day. They are portrayed as humble, continuing to work rather than demanding their pay from the Lord.

What the painting may fail to show, though, is that all the workers were unworthy of their Lord's generosity. Those who came late in the day were unworthy because they really didn't earn their pay. Those who worked all day are unworthy because they were dissatisfied with what God gave them. At the heart of the story is the truth that both sets of workers are dependent on the goodness and generosity of the Lord.

And so are we.

Lucas Cranach the Younger. Epitaph for Paul Eber: The Vineyard of the Lord. 1569. St. Mary's Church, Wittenberg. For St. Mary's see:
For a contemporary take on manna and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For a note on the background of Cranach's painting, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Exodus 14.19-31: God and Nations

Moses stands with the people on the edge of the water. The angel and the pillar of cloud have moved from in front of the people to behind them - between the people and the army of Pharaoh. What happens next shows the power of God, even in the face of a powerful nation. It's the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 19(24)/Pentecost 15A (Exodus 14:19-31, with the alternate reading being Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21). The alternate reading follows the actions of the Hebrew reading and are the focus of this essay.

The texts are at a moment in Israel's history when they are a nation without land. While they lived in Egypt they were loyal to the pharaoh, but as times changed and leaders changed and their status in the land changed, they realized that the nation of Egypt would not provide for them. When God leads them to freedom, they are meant to understand that God provides in ways that an earthly kingdom cannot.

So it's a little ironic that this story of God's people untangling from an earthly nation gets retangled centuries later. The manuscript illustrations shown here are from an eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript. In the illustration, Miriam and the women dance in a circle around eight musicians.

You may have to look twice to see the outer circle as people. The circle looks like an abstract pattern on first glance. Each of the knob-like shapes on the outside of the circle is actually the hat of one of the women. Further abstract shapes (in gold) are created as the ground between each figure and the sleeves of their garments.

The long sleeves are one of the signs that God's people have become entangled again with an earthly government. Byzantine people believed that the emperor was given his power by God and represented God on earth. The emperor's court, then, was the earthly image of God's heavenly court. The women in the circle here are shown in the style of court dress in the late eleventh century. Here the elite dance in a circle.
In other eleventh-century Byzantine manuscripts, this same exaggerated court sleeve is worn by David as he dances before the ark.

The stories of Miriam's dance and David's dance are often intermingled. Here there are musicians who are not mentioned in the Exodus text but are identified in the story of the ark coming to Jerusalem (I Chronicles 13-15). The artist has provided more details for Miriam and her company of dancers than the writer of scripture did.

How do we consider this illustration? One way is to understand that women throughout history have metaphorically and actually danced their joy when God's plan saves. They have worn the clothes of their day, circled up and danced with each other to celebrate and acknowledge what God has done. This happens to be an illustration from Constantinople in the eleventh century.

A second way to look at this is that once again, humanity has tangled itself up in conflating their government as God's government. The Israelites were not to put their trust in Egypt (no matter how much they missed the food). They were to understand that as God's people they followed God, relied on God, trusted God, looked to God. They were not to put their trust in earthly powers, even (especially?) their own. But they have, no doubt encouraged to do so by the Emperor.

The Byzantine Empire, like the kingdom of Egypt, like all earthly governments, will one day come to an end. But the dance of God goes on.

(Top) Miriam Dancing. 1059. Written in Constantinople. Vatican Graeci 752; folio 449v. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticani.
(Bottom) The Most Eminent Ladies of the Court, Tenth and Eleventh Century. Plate 17 from By the Emperor's Hand: Military Dress and Court Regalia in the Later Romano-Byzantine Empire by Timothy Dawson and Graham Sumner. 2016.
For thoughts on the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 18:21-35), click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook: the parable of the unmerciful servant. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Matthew 18.15-20: But He's a Ghost

Wherever two or three are gathered together, I am there among them. That's the final verse in the gospel reading for Proper 18(23)A/Pentecost 14A (Matthew 18:15-20). The concept is familiar and comforting. Jesus is with his followers, even when they are in small groups. But, apparently, Jesus is always ghostly, see-through, transparent when he is with his followers.
J. Doyle Penrose. Presence in the Midst. 1916.
James Tissot. Two or Three Gathered in my Name. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum. 
Why do you suppose that this ghostly Jesus is the symbol of presence? Is this how you imagine the presence of Christ? What other ways can you picture - or feel - the presence of Christ?

For thoughts on the Exodus passage for this week, click here. For a thought on the Romans passage about love doing no wrong to a neighbor, click on Art&Faith Matters Facebook

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Exodus 3.1-15: A Tiger by the Tail?

Moses sees a bush that burns but is not consumed, and he must investigate. It's what he finds on his investigation that changes the course of the rest of his life. That life-changing moment is the subject of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 17(22)A/Pentecost 13A (Exodus 3:1-15).
Abraham Rattner. Moses and the Burning Bush. 1971. Wool tapestry. For a report on a 2008 show of the tapestries, see:
American-born artist Abraham Rattner created a tapestry of the subject. Titled "Moses and the Burning Bush", the design places Moses kneeling before a mass of fire colors. Moses looks directly up at the sight (often he is looking across a landscape at the tree/bush), his hands in a prayerful gesture. The angel of the Lord (3:2) has come all the way out of the bush and stands behind Moses, perhaps whispering in his ear.

The fire-colored area does not have the leaves, trunk and branches of a usual bush. What is there are hands (of God), suggested in about a dozen line segments, and red lightning bolts. One of the most interesting moments in the design is the place where the figures on earth touch the figure in the fire. The touch is accomplished when the left hand of Moses (the presumption that this is Moses' hand is based on the color similarity between the raised hand and the hand of Moses that is fully visible) very gingerly reaches up to barely grasp a lightning bolt that appears to be an extension of the heavenly hand.
The key word is gingerly. Moses has not reached out to heartily grasp the hand/lightning/fire of God. His thumb and middle finger are hovering over the end of the bolt...just about to close the tiniest bit and have hold (however timidly). Perhaps Moses understands that reaching out to hold God's hand is like having a tiger by the tail. Or like sticking your finger in a socket.

What Moses - and we - need to remember is that God isn't requiring Moses to go it alone. God's purpose isn't to zap power into Moses or burn Moses to ash. God offers Moses the power that is needed to do the task that is before him. Not a volume of power (a gallon, a quart, 5000 watts) but rather power as presence.  I will be with you, God says (3:12).

Moses is probably right to be hesitant to take hold of God's power. The God who will lead people to freedom is not the teddy-bear-best-buddy-perfectly-manageable God. We might all be a little more deferential to the power of God. But we can also remember that God's power is promised to us as well. I will be with you, God says. Yes, with you.

For thoughts on the Mark version of the gospel reading (Matthew 16:21-28), click here.
For thoughts on the epistle reading (Romans 12) for this week, click here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, some word thoughts. Click on the link below.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Exodus 1.8-2.10: Forgetting and Remembering

And there arose a king who did not know Joseph. That is the chilling beginning of the Israelites' changing fortunes in Egypt. Originally welcomed as the family of Joseph, who saved Egypt from famine, the Israelites are known to this new king only as a threat to his position of power. He doesn't care what happened in the past or what was promised to these people. So the king decides to neutralize the threat. That's the beginning of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 16(21)A/Pentecost 12A (Exodus 1:8-2:10).

Probably no contemporary artist has devoted more time and energy to the art (and necessity) of remembering the past than Anselm Kiefer. Born in post-war Germany in 1945, Kiefer has continued to prod his own and the world's remembrance of Germany's legacy of World War II.

Anselm Kiefer. Fur Paul Celan: Aschenblume. 2006. Oil, acyrlic, emulsion, shellac, and books on canvas. Private collection. For Anselm Kiefer, see:

Kiefer's Für Paul Celan : Aschenblume is a large-scale work (more than 10 feet tall and 25 feet long), includes various paints, shellac and burned books. Books, for Kiefer, symbolize the storehouse of human history and knowledge. Burned books are a reminder of Nazi book burnings and can also be a reference to the linguistic root of the word holocaust. Holocaust comes from the Greek holokauston, related to the Hebrew olah ("burnt whole").

George Santayana (Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) gave the world the eminently quotable aphorism Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Kiefer's work demanded (and still demands) that the past be remembered. What are the dangers we face when we "do not know Joseph"? And who will be Shiphrah and Puah when Joseph has been forgotten?

For thoughts on how the gospel reading intersects with the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.
This week on Facebook, consider how many artists "know Joseph" in their paintings of the Exodus. Click here