Sunday, January 29, 2017

Isaiah 58.1-12: God's Choice

The Epiphany 5A reading from Hebrew scripture is pretty direct. Isaiah 58:1-12 is a conversation between God and the nation.
   God: Go ahead. Tell the people what is wrong with how they are living. They keep saying to me,    People: "We fast, but you aren't looking. Why should we humble ourselves if you aren't going to notice."
   God: You only fast so you can quarrel about it. That kind of fasting won't get my attention. Do you think that's the kind of fasting I want? The kind of fasting I want is this:
     loose the bonds of injustice
     untie the people who are yoked fact, break all the yokes
     let the oppressed go free
     share your bread with the hungry
     bring the homeless into your homes
     clothe the naked
     Do those things. Then you'll have my attention.

Helen Siegl was born in Austria in 1924. She grew up in in Vienna during the years when National Socialism was on the rise in Germany and Austria was annexed by them. She was in Austria in the years of World War II and in the post-war years. Siegl immigrated to Canada, where she met and married Theodore Siegl. Theodore was named conservator of paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the family, which would grow to include eight children, settled in Pennsylvania.
Helen Siegl. Isaiah 58:7. Block print. 
In the print here Siegl illustrates Isaiah 58:7. She includes the text of the verse and a depiction of the living out of that text. It's a direct illustration of a direct instruction from God. Get rid of pointing fingers and gossiping and burdening others, start feeding the hungry and help those who are in need. Then your lives will begin to shine like the sun at noon, then I'll be guiding you through the empty places, then you'll look like a garden. Then you will be called the repairer of all things: ancient ruins of the past, shaky foundations of the future. You'll make a place where people can live.

It is a pretty direct instruction. So if we don't do these things, then, to use the metaphor found in the gospel reading (Matthew 5:13) have we indeed lost our saltiness? And if we have lost that, then what are good for?

For thoughts on I Corinthians 2:1-16, click here.
For thoughts on salt (general thoughts, not necessarily about Matthew 5:13-20), click here.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Wisdom and Foolishness and Blessings and Woes

The Beatitudes (Matthew's version is 5:1-12) may only feel true if you also know I Corinthians 1:18-31. Both texts are read on Epiphany 3A. Both texts seem to turn traditional wisdom on its head. Who would believe that mourning, persecution and poverty are signed of blessedness? Not most people. But the Corinthians passage reminds the reader that wisdom and foolishness are different when seen through God's eyes.

Paul reminds us that what the world says is foolish - notably the cross and Christ's death on it - is God's wisdom. In God's wisdom, the covenant with Abraham is fulfilled and sinful humans don't have their sins held against them. In God's wisdom, greater love has no one than to lay down life for friends. In God's wisdom, being persecuted for God's sake means you are doing faith right.
Marc Chagall. The Madman Who Sold Wisdom. From The Fables of Jean La Fontaine. 1927-1930. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Russian artist Marc Chagall illustrates the collision of wisdom and foolishness in an illustration that is part of The Fables of La Fontaine.  "The Madman Who Sold Wisdom" (Le Fou qui vent la Sagesse) tells the tale of a fool who announces that he has wisdom for sale. Soon enough people line up to buy wisdom, and what he gives them is a length of cord and a slap on the side of the head. Some were angry that they had paid for this; others simply walk away, believing they will look more foolish if they try to argue with a fool. One purchaser of wisdom goes to a sage to ask for an explanation. The wise person answers that the purchaser should stay as far away from the fool as the length of the cord he received. Anyone who stands closer to that will surely get the same slap on the side of the head. "You weren't fooled," the wise one concludes. "He did sell you wisdom."

God's wisdom. The wisdom of the world. The world's foolishness. The foolishness of God. Blessed are those who...

For thoughts on Micah 6:1-8 click here.

And this week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...something entirely different.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Great Light

It's the line that echoes from the Isaiah passage (9:1-4) to the gospel reading (Matthew 4:12-23) on the second Sunday after Epiphany(A): The people who walked in [sat in] darkness have seen a great light.

I was all ready to bedazzle this blog post with some of the amazing light installations that contemporary artists are creating. Millions of lights created through actual lights and reflections in mirrored rooms. Images the size of a cathedral wall projected onto...a cathedral wall. Lights that change according to programmed pattern or random change. Clear lights. Colored lights.

And then I wondered if "great light" might mean something else entirely.

Perhaps the light wasn't great because it was a spectacular display of cosmic fireworks. Perhaps the light was great because of what happened by it.

After all, the pyramids of Giza, Gothic cathedrals, the rock churches of Lalibela - all of these were made at a time when the world was (to quote a book title) lit only by fire. Abraham Lincoln didn't learn to read by flipping on a light switch when he got back to the family cabin after working all day. Astronomers around the globe created maps of the heavens. They found those stars with a candle or lantern sitting on the work table next to their telescopes. Any nighttime construction at Stonehenge was done by torchlight. Even for Jesus, who might have been welcomed to earth with a cosmic light show, it wasn't a daily occurrence. And despite what artists might have you believe, there probably wasn't a disk of unnatural light around his head. Someone would have mentioned that. Jesus' life was lit by oil-fueled lanterns and fires.

What might happen, then, when we think about the "great light" that we have seen? Not the star that led magi, but Jesus. How might that great light move us, lead us, call us?

But I can't help myself, so check out the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for just one of those light installations.

For other thoughts on Isaiah and Matthew, click here.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

John 1.29-42: Brothers

Brothers. The gospel reading for Epiphany 2A (John 1:29-42) features the call stories of one set of brothers who were part of the original twelve. James and John are the other pair, but here we read the story of Peter and Andrew. That is usually the order in which they are given, with Peter taking the first spot. Peter is such a vivid character in the gospels with his impetuous behavior, his impetuous speech, his impetuous...well, you know. Andrew is seen more infrequently. His name is mentioned twelve times in Christian scripture. By contrast, his brother's name is mentioned more than 150 times.

You'd think Andrew might be jealous. You'd think there might be some sibling rivalry. You might think any number of things, but you wouldn't know. Because scripture seems decidedly uninterested in the sibling relationship of Andrew and Peter.
Ossip Zadkine. The Van Gogh Brothers. 1956. Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art.
It would have been interesting to know who was older (would you hazard a guess based on what you know from scripture?), how they talked to one another when Jesus wasn't around. Was one more artistic than the other or one more athletic than the other? Did they share the same dominant hand or was one a righty and the other a lefty? Was Andrew an introvert, or does he only seem introverted because he is often standing next to his brother? Those are things we don't know.

What we do know is that Peter indeed steps to the forefront of the brothers - and of the disciples. But had it not been for Andrew, perhaps Peter would never have been there at all. In fact, almost every time we see Andrew in scripture, he is bringing someone else to Jesus. Andrew found the boy with five loaves and two fish and brought him to Jesus. When several Greek inquirers want time with Jesus, Andrew advises Philip to take them to him.

One brother known. Both brothers valuable.

I was reminded of another set of brothers: Vincent and Theo van Gogh. Most people, even those with a minimal knowledge of art history, are familiar with Vincent's name. His paintings, a couple of events in his life. People know that. Many have never heard of Theo van Gogh. But without Theo, the world probably would not know Vincent.
Ossip Zadkine. Vincent and Theo van Gogh. 1964. Zundert, Netherlands.
Theo van Gogh was an art dealer. About four years younger than Vincent, Theo was unfailing in his support of his brother. Theo supported Vincent emotionally and financially both before and after his (Theo's) marriage. He sent Vincent art supplies like canvas and paint and money for living expenses. Theo tried to run interference between Vincent and their father. He admired his older brother and believed that his talent was true and timeless. He was one of few people in the world who did.

Theodorus van Gogh, father to Theo and Vincent, was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent reflected in a letter that Father van Gogh referred to the story of Jacob and Esau when talking about the brothers. Vincent wrote: Pa sometimes mulled over the story of Jacob and Esau with regard to you and me — not entirely mistakenly — although happily there’s less enmity, to mention just one difference, and in the Bible itself there are examples aplenty of better relations between brothers than existed between the aforementioned venerable patriarchs. 

The relationship between adult brothers is often quite complex. There are layers of memories, resentments, love, irritations. But for many brothers - regardless of the resentments and irritations - there is still the love. That is what artist Ossip Zadkine set out to depict in the two sculptures shown here. Both have the van Gogh brothers as their subject. Note how the figures lean toward one another. In the smaller piece the brothers' heads are together. In the larger outdoor piece, located in Zundert, the van Gogh brothers' hometown, the brothers are standing. Their heads are still together, and in this piece they seem to share a heart as well.

Though the point of the gospel reading is Jesus' call and the disciples' answer, it is important to note that Jesus didn't call only people like Peter and that it was the non-spotlight brother Andrew who was effective in finding the people who could help Jesus fulfill his mission. Two brothers. Both valuable. As each disciple is.

"Behold the lamb of God!" said John when he saw Jesus. Here's another lamb. Find out more about it on our Facebook page. 

For additional thoughts on John 1:29-42, click here.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Journeying Toward Jesus

The liturgical and non-liturgical calendars coincide this year to put Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord in exceedingly close proximity. The story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) is familiar as it, along with the Baptism of the Lord (Matthew 3:13-17), is read every year. Visitors who are "not from around here" arrive at the house where Mary and Joseph and their newborn baby are living. The liturgical themes of Epiphany are many, and they multiply when Epiphany is considered in light of baptism.

Italian painter Stefano di Giovanni (called Sassetta) painted the magi story in what is now two panels (bottom image). At the top of the panel the magi process away from the pink city of Jerusalem where they have consulted with Herod and his court. They move from the right side of the canvas toward the left, moving downhill (and out of the picture space) as they go. In the bottom panel the magi arrive at the house (cave?) where Mary sits in the Roman-arched doorway with baby Jesus on her lap.

Seeing the second panel helps explain the presence of the gold star under the feet of the magi's horses. The beams from the star trail downward toward the bottom edge of the top panel. It is far from the usual arrangement. The star's location is explained when the two panels are seen together. The star is directly over the head of the Christ child in the bottom panel - exactly where Matthew's gospel says it will be.

The goal of the magi was to find the king who had been born. They knew of the king and set out on the journey. They did not know the destination but trusted they would find him. And they did. Were they dreamers? Foolish? No doubt many people thought they were both those things and more for embarking on such a trip based only on a star.

Sassetta's version of the story give the journey a bit of a circus air. In the journey panel, just to the right of the left edge, a monkey rides on the back of a donkey. Several people and horses behind him, a man wearing a pink tunic sits on his horse while a hunting falcon rides on his arm. Dogs - one white and one brown - travel with the group. The landscape is barren, with only the occasional skeletal tree, though several kinds of birds are in the picture (more on that on Facebook this week).

At his baptism Jesus was called into ministry and began a journey that seems every bit as much the journey of a dreamer as the journey of the magi. He knew his purpose and followed the road to its end. Perhaps you have to be more than a bit of a dreamer to set out on a journey like that.

Maybe. But maybe all you have to be is baptized. In many ways we find ourselves in both stories. For surely baptism is both our call to ministry and our call to a journey to find Jesus that we may worship him.

(Top) Sassetta. Journey of the Magi. 1433-1435. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(Bottom) Sassetta. Journey of the Magi (Met) at top. Adoration of the Magi. 1433-35. Siena: Chigi-Saracini Collection.

This week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post is for the birds. Or about the birds, anyway. Click here for more information.

For additional thoughts on Epiphany, click here.