Sunday, April 30, 2017

John 10.1-10: I Am the Gate

Among the "I am" sayings of Jesus, "gate" may not be among the most frequent answers to a "fill in the blank" question. However, this particular "I am" saying is found in the Gospel reading for Easter 4A (John 10:1-10), along with several other texts that either mention or are centered on sheep.
While many of the "I am" sayings are poetic and lovely - bread of life, resurrection and the life, vine, and more - the "gate" image shows us Jesus not as poetry, but as a necessary, functioning object. Without the gate, the sheepfold (or pen) is useless. Sheep may indeed wander in, but they can just as easily walk right out.

Sometimes the shepherd literally became the gate, lying down in front of the opening of the fold so that no sheep can walk out - and no predator can walk in - without the shepherd being alerted. Caring for the sheep. Abundant life for the sheep. That's the bottom line for Jesus, the Good Shepherd. As sheep, we are blessed.

Photo: Dry stone sheep pen, Scotland.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Luke 24.13-35: When the Pilgrimage Seems to Have Been a Bust

The gospel reading for Easter 3A (Luke 24:13-35) is another in the well-known post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Here, he appears to two disciples who are walking to Emmaus after the events of Jesus' crucifixion. The excitement was over. Jesus was dead. Might as well go home.

Little did they know.

Caravaggio painted several versions of the supper at Emmaus. This version is from 1601. A younger-than-usual-looking Jesus (note the lack of beard) sits at table with two men while a third appears to be serving. The food on the table comprises a delicious repast for the diners and a beautiful still life for the painter: roasted chicken (feet still attached), bread, fruits.

Jesus gestures with his right hand, and one of the travelers starts to push himself out of his chair while the other gestures with both arms outstretched. It isn't clear exactly what moment this is. There is bread in front of each person at the table, so perhaps Jesus has already broken bread and the two have recognized him. The story is familiar. Jesus will soon disappear, and the two travelers will hurry back to Jerusalem to tell their story. Imagine the wonder of it - if you were the one to see Jesus after everyone thought he was dead.

One of the interesting details that the artist has included is the scallop shell pinned to the outer garment of the traveler on the right. The scallop shell might not have been known in Jesus' day, but for those in Caravaggio's time - and for Christians in preceding centuries - the shell was a specific symbol. A person wearing a scallop shell pinned to his garment was known to be a pilgrim. Most often the shell-wearing traveler was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The scallop shell, a symbol of the disciple James, was worn on the way to Santiago, to the Cathedral of St. James, where the apostle's remains are supposedly buried.

Medieval pilgrims wearing the scallop shell were entitled to food and lodging. The shell was a handy size for use as a drinking cup or as a bowl for eating. The presence of the shell on this traveler marks him as a pilgrim, a traveler on a religious journey. The only journey he had been on was to Jerusalem to see the one they had thought would redeem Israel: Jesus.

But that had ended badly. Apparently Jesus was not the one to redeem them. And though there were reports that his tomb was empty, these two hadn't seen Jesus so they couldn't verify it. He had been on pilgrimage, been to the holy city, perhaps witnessed some of the events of Holy Week, but it had been for nothing.

Until now.

The painting is Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus. 1601. London: National Gallery.

See Christ as the pilgrim in this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post. Click on the link below.

Monday, April 17, 2017

John 20.19-31: Thank You, Thomas

The first Sunday after Easter uses the same gospel reading in all three years of the lectionary: John 20:19-31. This is the story of Christ's appearance to the disciples post-resurrection and Thomas' after-Easter moment in the spotlight. Thomas is often criticized for his desire to see for himself, but I would suggest that there is another way to consider this story and Thomas' actions.

Thomas was asking, essentially, for proof of life. And interestingly, he will recognize life by seeing, by touching, Jesus' wounds. That is how he will recognize Jesus, how he will know that the one standing before him is Jesus: by his wounds. He doesn't ask Jesus to come back and perform a miracle - strike down the officials who sought to squash the Jesus Movement, heal more paralytics, elevate Thomas to a position in the inner circle of disciples, make it snow in summer.

Instead, what Thomas wants is to know that this is the Jesus who suffered. In fact, Thomas seems to be the only one willing to remember the suffering of Jesus. The other disciples seem ready to move on - and so they should - and so should we. It is after Easter, after all. And yet, moving on doesn't mean forgetting. How quickly we want to forget that Jesus suffered (because of us!). It is sometimes a battle to have people dwell in the betrayal, crucifixion and death of Jesus for even the 48 hours between Maundy Thursday evening and an Easter vigil. Too often there is a quick move (Sunday's coming!) that, intended or not, minimizes the suffering of Jesus and the reminder of all those in our world who are suffering.

For Thomas and the disciples, Sunday had come, and Thomas alone seems to remember the cost of Jesus' act of love and sacrifice. Wounds as proof of life. Thank you, Thomas.

Illustration is Carl Bloch's "The Doubting Thomas". 1881. Ugerlose Kirke, Denmark.

For additional thoughts about Thomas (John 20:19-31), click here or here.
For thoughts on Acts 4:32-35, click here.
On Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page this week: the disciples tell Thomas it's time to move on. Click on the link.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Crucifixion: Blood and Wine

Nikolai Ge (1831-1894; sometimes Ghe or Gay) was a Russian painter influenced by the writings of Leo Tolstoy. His final series of paintings were of Christ's Passion. This painting, "Calvary" (also called "Golgotha" and/or "Crucifixion") is the final painting in the series. This final painting highlights the emotional and physical toll on Christ at the crucifixion.
Nikolai Ge. Calvary. c. 1892. Paris: Musee d'Orsay.
Christ's body sags on the cross, his knees almost below the ankles that are nailed to the vertical piece of the cross to support his weight. His head is below his hands, nailed to the horizontal element of the tau-shaped cross. This is not Christ triumphant, merely standing on a cross with his arms outstretched. This is Jesus who suffers.

The Agony
by George Herbert (1593-1633)

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Marking Time Until Easter

Finding a painting that captures the resurrection of Jesus in a convincing way is a daunting task. Jesus climbing out of a tomb or standing before a weeping Mary abound. But while they may accurately describe a scene, they don't (for me) capture the momentousness of the event. So for this week, we will consider art and faith beyond an illustrative image. See the Art&Faith Matters Facebook this week for some narrative images covering the events of Holy Week.

Diagonally across the floor of the nave of S. Maria degli Angeli in Rome is a brass line. The metal is inlaid and marked at intervals by words and images. Similar lines are found in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, St. Sulpice in Paris and Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The reason they are there has to do with Easter. Specifically, calculating when Easter would be.

Unlike Christmas, Easter is not on a fixed day. Instead it is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox. The equinox is the day when the hours of the day are divided equally: 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. We consider March 21 as the equinox, but the true equinox is not always on March 21. Figuring exactly when the equinox would occur required a meridian line. Such lines were installed in many cathedrals, turning them into solar observatories.

The meridian line is half of the apparatus required to track the path of the sun (and the dependent celebration of Easter). The other required element is an oculus - a hole in the ceiling that serves as an aperture. The sun's rays shone through the oculus onto the meridian line, crossing the line at solar noon and over the course of the year, indicating both winter and summer solstices (the extreme ends of the sun's journey at the extreme ends of the meridian line) as well as the equinox at the midpoint of the meridian line.

The meridian lines really served more to confirm the accuracy of Gregorian calendar reform than to predict an unknown Easter date. Pope Gregory XIII instituted calendar reform in 1582 in an effort to stop the drift of events like the solstices and equinoxes. In that year, ten days were removed from the calendar so that Eastern and Western Christians would celebrate Easter on the same day. This intersection of sun and Easter was also an intersection of science and faith. The meridian lines were supported by the church authorities who were happy to be able to tell at a glance when Easter would be.

The meridian lines have not remained completely accurate. This is due not to any astronomical discrepancies but rather to the fact that some of these cathedrals are sinking. The measurements are no longer as accurate, meaning the sun shining through the oculus illuminates the floor near but perhaps not on the line. In some cases, the lines are now used as instruments to measure how the structure of the cathedral has shifted. The lines are still there, though, visible reminders of the movement of the universe that God created and then redeemed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

All images are of S. Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome, Italy. (Top) The meridian line crossing the nave of the church. (Middle) Close-up of the meridian line with Easter - Paschae - identified. (Bottom) Exterior of S. Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri.

For thoughts on the followers who came to the tomb, click here.
For thoughts on Jesus' words to Mary, click here.
For thoughts on how we picture what Jesus did in his life, death and resurrection, click here.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Matthew 21.1-11: Carried and Waved

The re-enactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem is an annual event around the world. With palm branches (or some kind of branches) in evidence, Christ's church remembers that Jesus came riding into the city on a donkey and a colt, according to the Gospel reading for Palm/Passion Sunday in lectionary year A (Matthew 21:1-11). Matthew's gospel gives us the donkey and the colt, branches being spread on the road (but not waved) and cries of Hosanna!

It is customary that the palms from one year are kept until the following year when the year-old bone-dry palms are burned to create the ashes imposed on the faithful on Ash Wednesday. The palm branches become the symbol of dust from which we came and to which we will return. The practice reminds us that the people's cries of Hosanna! on Sunday will turn to shouts of Crucify him! on Friday. Inconstancy is an eternally human characteristic.

It is this journey from palm to ash as a reminder of sin that makes the photo below especially interesting. The photo was taken as part of an assignment to document Palm Sunday celebrations around the world. These three women sit at a bus stop in Warsaw, Poland, with palm branches taller than they are. Perhaps the photographer was intrigued with the scale of woman to branch or the contrast of the red scarf with the green branch. Maybe it was the sheer ordinariness of the women's postures. The photo would be perfectly ordinary if the palms were edited out of the picture. The women seem almost unaware that they are holding something the height of a small tree.
Alik Keplicz/AP. Women with palm leaves wait at a bus stop after a Palm Sunday procession in Warsaw, Poland, on March 20, 2016.
Do you think the women are on their way to the procession or on their way home? It doesn't matter, of course, but to see them carrying giant palm fronds in such an ordinary setting might kindle some questions. If we consider the palms as symbols of the human inconstancy (frailty? finitude?) that becomes the sin of demanding the death of an innocent man, then these women give us opportunities to consider: the original branch-bearers carried their inconstancy with them to the Jesus parade and on that day they also carried their inconstancy back home.

On this Sunday of palms and parades, may we remember all the ways that we, too, carefully bring our own frailty, finitude and inconstancy to the places we see Jesus. How often is our inconstancy exhibited in how we live our lives, even in times when we shout "Save us!" And Jesus rides on.

For additional thoughts on Palm Sunday's "triumphal" entry, click here.
For additional thoughts on Palm Sunday's donkey, click here.