Sunday, February 26, 2017

Matthew 4.1-11: Tempted

The first Sunday in Lent finds Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1A). He has been baptized and is "led up" by the Spirit. There follows forty days of testing for Jesus. He is offered the things of the world that signify success. He is encouraged to get for himself the things that would satisfy. He is taunted into proving that God loves him. And in all these things, Jesus resists. Resists satisfying human urges. Resists idolizing success in this world. Resists the need to test God.

Often artists paint the pinnacle of the Temple, the top of the mountain. Often the Devil is portrayed in demonic and threatening ways (which would seem to be easier to resist than temptation that is beautiful, easy and just-one-step-away). Which is why Briton Riviere's version of Christ in the Wilderness is so appealing.
Briton Riviere. Christ in the Wilderness. 1898, London: Guildhall Art Gallery.
There is no architecture, no glory, no demonic presence. Just Christ alone in a barren landscape. Just Christ seated on a wave of rocky landscape. Just Christ seated with the weight of his shoulders resting on his hands and his head hanging low.

There is a story in Hebrew scripture that became a prefiguring of Christ in the wilderness. That story is David and Goliath. There are two combatants in the story. Both involve a time of forty days. David would not wear armor, Jesus wears no armor either. David's weapons are seemingly ineffective stones. Jesus' weapons are "mere" words. And yet. The giant falls. The temptations are resisted.

Have the temptations happened in Riviere's painting? Are they still to come? From where have they come? Did Jesus find the temptations in the wilderness? Or did they accompany him there? For Riviere it's just Christ and the wilderness.

Perhaps Jesus has been successful in this painting. Perhaps he is resting after his exertions. Jesus has won. And yet if you look along the horizon there is a glowing red line. So even if the battle is done here, there is something else ahead. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Yesterday's battles are done, but the sun is rising on a new day.

Check this pulpit in relation to the readings from Lent 1A. Click on this link to Facebook.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Matthew 17.1-9: Doing Laundry

According to Matthew's gospel (17:1-9, Transfiguration A), at the moment of transfiguration Jesus' clothes became "dazzling white" (NRSV). Luke uses the same language. Mark's version gives us a additional phrase. Mark 9:3 says: "...and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them." The King James Version gives us further information by using the word fuller (And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.)

Using the word fuller may tell us more about the Britain of King James than turn-of-the-millennium Israel, but it is an interesting avenue into the Transfiguration text. It takes us to...laundry. Fuller comes from the Anglo-Saxon word fullian, "to whiten". And though the occupation of fuller is Anglo-Saxon, there is evidence of bleaching fabric at least as early as ancient Egypt. Specifically, white linen was bleached for the clothing of the upper classes. Wet cloth was rubbed with natron, a naturally occurring salt. The cloth was spread out, beaten with a wooden mallet and left to dry. The hot sun combined with the salt to bleach the fabric. The practice of spreading clothes and fabric out in the sun as part of the laundry process continued into contemporary times when a washer and dryer became common time-saving devices. The manuscript illustration below is part of a German manuscript from 1582. In the image women are working by a river. One of the women is washing clothes directly in the river while others wash in wooden basins. A fire burns under a pot, providing hot water. In the background, women hang the clothes (or maybe just cloth) on wooden racks and spread cloth in the fields to dry.
Splendor Solis. Harley 3469. British Library. 1582. Origin: Germany. 
Though this text (and the Transfiguration itself) does not seem to be so much about washing as cleansing, other texts draw a parallel - and in the KJV a word parallel - with the idea of washing and its role as a remedy for human sin. Malachi 3:2 (NRSV) says "But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap." The fire and soap are purifying elements and are the plan for how the Lord will deal with this world on the Day of the Lord.

The Greek word (which only appears in Mark's gospel is gnapheus (γναφεύς); its Hebrew counterpart is mekabbasim (מְכַבְּסִֽים). Both words are nouns (though the Greek is singular and the Hebrew is plural) describing people who wash or launder clothes. But no thing, no one, on earth could have made something as bright as Jesus' clothes on that mountain. Indeed.

A more literal translation of Matthew 17:2 is that Jesus' clothes became "white as the light". It's a different thing to be the white of light and the white of pigment. White light contains all colors of the spectrum. They come together to make the brightest light possible. In the world of pigments, white is the absence of all color. For fabric to be totally absent of all color, some kind of bleaching process is needed, because the fibers will have natural color of their own. For example, the "white" of sheep's wool isn't totally white. No matter how often the sheep's wool is bleached, the gospel writer tells us, the wool could never be as bright as Jesus' garment.

Perhaps what happened at the Transfiguration simply reminds us that all the earthly means of washing and bleaching can't make things as bright as Jesus. In that moment the real Jesus shone through: not a human whose sins are bleached away in a process, but the Son of God whose embrace of a spectrum of disparate colors causes a brightness brighter than anything we have ever seen before.

White as the light? Which pigment should you buy for that? Good question. Look at Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

For additional thoughts on Transfiguration, click here, herehere, or here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Flying Lessons

The Epiphany 6A reading from Hebrew scripture (Leviticus 9:1-2, 9-18) outlines the obligations of faithful people: leave gleanings for the poor and alien, don't steal, don't profane, don't defraud your neighbor, don't put a stumbling block, don't keep wages overnight, be partial to the poor, don't slander, don't reprove a neighbor or you'll be guilty yourself, don't bear a grudge against anyone.

The gospel reading (Matthew 5:38-48) finds Jesus developing ideas that have been around before. Don't do the least you can do, instead do more. Turn the other cheek. Give your cloak as well. Go the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The epistle reading (I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23) reminds us that we are building a temple based on the foundation that is Jesus Christ. We are to be wise and not boast about human leaders, instead remembering that we belong to Christ.

Reading these texts together can leave the reader feeling that faith is, if not burdensome, then at least heavy. Think how many people we become responsible for: the poor, the alien, our neighbor, our employees, those who would oppress us, those who make demands of us, those who beg from us and more. Living our faith connects us to people.

How is it possible to live abundantly while carrying responsibility for so many people? Do we become oppressed by our faith? No. And maybe we should thank Daniel Bernoulli for helping us understand that we can get our faith off the ground, even with great weight upon us. It is Bernoulli, a mathematician and physicist. whose experiments and formulations helped us understand how to get a 747 (which has an empty weight of about 400,000 pounds) off the ground.

Bernoulli was working with fluid dynamics, but in terms of flight, air is the "fluid". The shape of the wing causes air to move faster across the top of the wing than the bottom of the wing. Faster moving fluids (top of the wing) create less pressure, so the bottom of the wing creates greater pressure, creating lift. Lift opposes the weight of the airplane, allowing it to take off and remain in the air. The weight is not a deterrent to flying when air is moving and providing lift. In the same way, our lives of faith are given lift by the Holy Spirit blowing in and through our lives.
Mike Kelley. Airportrait of LAX. 2014. 
For more of Mike Kelley's work, see:
Photographer Mike Kelley's airportraits show just how many planes take off from given airports. Over and over, Bernoulli's
principle performs as it should, carrying more than 1.5 million travelers per day in the U.S.

Imagine all of those planes as people of God who are lifted to carry countless others. Suddenly it doesn't seem quite so burdensome.

On Facebook this week, a look at two specific instructions from this week's readings. Click on the link below. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

I Corinthians 3.1-9: What's Not in the Picture

Paul? Apollos? No. The one who is important is God. That's Paul's message to the Christ-followers in Corinth (I Corinthians 3:1-9, Epiphany 6A). Paul doesn't deny that both he and Apollos are part of the process, but the growth, he acknowledges, comes from God.

The seed-plant-water-grow sequence offers the opportunity to think about the church in the context of gardening or farming. In the painting that is considered his masterpiece, Scottish artist William York MacGregor, shows a vegetable stall filled with cabbages, rhubarb, leeks, potatoes, onions and more. It is a reminder that those seeds that are planted by Paul (or whomever) are seeds for a variety of produce.
 William York MacGregor. The Vegetable Stall. 1884. Edinburgh: National Galleries Scotland. For the painting, see: For an x-ray showing the painted-out figure, see:
But it is what isn't there that makes this painting an even better match for this text. Originally, influenced by Dutch and Flemish painters, MacGregor included a figure in the painting.
At the right side of the composition, the stall holder was shown counting her money. MacGregor chose to paint out that figure, just as Paul painted over the role played by himself and Apollos. It isn't that the roles of the people aren't important, it's just that God's work is more important.

One plants. One waters. But it is God who gives the increase.  

This week on Facebook: a sculptural work focusing on Matthew 5:21-37. Click here.
For thoughts on Deuteronomy 30:15-20, click here.