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.

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