Sunday, May 28, 2017

Acts 2.1-21: A Day for...Weddings?

Pentecost lectionary readings focus on the day of Pentecost with its locked doors, rushing wind, tongues of fire, preaching and conversion (Acts 2:1-21). So it's interesting that Pentecost has more than one association with weddings, which are not mentioned at all in the text. Pieter Brueghel's painting "The Whitsun Bride", below, calls attention to an old folk practice and an alternate name for Pentecost.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The Whitsun Bride. 17th century. Private collection.
The folk practice was the adornment of a village "bride" with particular flowers followed by a parade through the village with the children "begging" as on Halloween. The parade took place the week after Pentecost, which is also called Whitsunday. The ceremony highlighted the Whitsun flower, pinksterbloem (which also means "a girl foolishly attired"), which may be one of several flowers blooming around the time of Pentecost. The combination of weddings and flowers brings to Pentecost more a feeling of Spring, fertility, and new life that is often more associated with Easter than Pentecost.

English poet Phillip Larkin tied weddings to Whitsun in his poem "The Whitsun Weddings". The poem recounts a train journey to London that might be real, imagined or conflated from several actual journeys. The day is Whitsunday, a day which offered a tax advantage for weddings making it an especially popular day for weddings. Several newly-married couples board the train on which the poet (or the persona whose voice is speaking the poem) is traveling.

The day's name, Pentecost, refers to the fifty days that passed between Easter and the day of Pentecost. But Pentecost also was called Whitsunday, contracted from White Sunday, presumably emphasizing the white garments of catechumens who were baptized on Pentecost. However, in England, the root of "white" became confused with the root for "wit" and the association changed from the white of baptismal garments to the wisdom dispensed by the Holy Spirit.

Today we think of Pentecost as "the birthday of the church" rather than a day particularly associated with weddings. But every liturgical day has a history of observance that may take its meanings well outside what we find in the text. How does the association of Pentecost with weddings change the way you think about the day?

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere or here. For thoughts on Genesis 11:1-9, click here.
How might you picture the power and presence of Pentecost winds through photography? Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link here

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Acts 1.6-14: Up - Toward Heaven and Out of Sight

The disciples just stood there. Until one of the men in white pointed out that they were just standing there (Easter 7A, Acts 1:6-14). After it was pointed out that they were just standing there, they left, having watched until they could no longer see Jesus. Their last sight of Jesus might have looked something like this.
Salvador Dali. The Ascension of Christ. 1958. Private Collection.
The artist has offered us a very different point of view of this story. Where we usually look across a landscape to see Jesus hovering above the mountain and the disciples, in Dali's painting, we stand where the disciples stood as they watched Jesus leave them. This is the second time since Jesus' resurrection that his friends and followers have been called to let go of Jesus. The disciples know here how Mary felt on Easter morning when Jesus would not let himself be held onto. By this point in the story Jesus is out of the disciples' reach, though he has promised that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. 

The painting includes references to power, of multiple kinds of power. The composition was inspired by a dream in which Dali saw the nucleus of an atom (modern power), here bearing a pattern similar to that of a sunflower's center. Dali saw the nucleus as unifying heaven and earth - which Christ did in his very person. The figure ascends into the heavenly realm, a crescent shape of blue-white created from the outstretched wings of a dove (a symbol of the Holy Spirit, whose power was promised to the disciples - and us). Gaia, the personification of the Earth, is at the top center of the composition. 

Empowered? Powerless? Earthly power? Heavenly power? Spiritual power? Nuclear power? All of these are contained in the composition which reminds us that the disciples just stood. Looking up. Up toward heaven as Jesus left their sight.

Jesus' feet are important in another Ascension Day text. See which one on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page. For additional Ascension images on Facebook, click here or here.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Acts 17.22-31: An Altar Like That

Note: This is where we started. The first lectionary-related post on this blog was Paul at the Areopagus. It's been three years - one full lectionary cycle.  We'll start work on the second cycle, certainly with different art and often with a different scripture than was explored the first time around. I hope the posts are useful for you. Thank you for checking in on Art&Faith Matters.

Easter 6A's Acts reading has Paul at the Areopagus, making a case that Yahweh-Jesus is the God whom the Greeks previously didn't know (Acts 17:22-31). He calls attention to an altar he had seen on his exploration of the city's worship sites. The altar is inscribed "to an unknown god" according to Paul. Then Paul relates that he has come to make this formerly unknown god a Known God.

In the Palatine Museum in Rome is an altar bearing an inscription to that cited by Paul in Athens. The inscription begins "whether god or goddess" (si deus si dea), a phrase indicating that the deity is unknown. Often there would be a request that followed ("Whether you are a god or goddess that rules over Rome, grant us..."). 

The wording on the altar, discovered in 1820, may have been an attempt to keep the identity of the local god a secret from enemies. If the god was unknown, the enemies could not call for divine intervention on their own behalf or call on their own gods to defeat the local gods. The inscription may have just been covering all the bases - no need to anger a god who has been forgotten. Whatever its origin, this altar (and there are others with similar inscriptions) helps us know a little more about what Paul might have been seeing.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

John 14.1-14: Many Rooms

Note: The Acts reading for Easter 5A is the stoning of Stephen. There are paintings of that story, but they bear little resemblance to the brutality that we, sadly, see in photos of actual stonings that take place in our world. Spanish artist Pablo Camps has created an art installation to call attention to the practice and hopefully create an outcry that would stop the practice. Camps' work should disturb all who see it. It won't be published on this page, but if you are interested in seeing it, follow this link: 

The reading from John's gospel for Easter 5A (John 14:1-14) is often heard at funerals: In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. Dwelling places is sometimes translated rooms. The gist of the passage is a reminder to the disciples that even though Jesus will be leaving them on earth, he is merely going ahead to prepare a place for them. And there's lots of room, Jesus says.

Contemporary artist Louiz Kierkebjerg Nielsen has created a print titled "Many Rooms" that takes literally the idea of architecture and also shows Jesus as preparing a place for many people and welcoming them to that place. What can be read as a statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, towers above a crowded (and small in comparison to the standing figure) cityscape. The Jesus figure is made up of doors and windows, which continue the housing options offered at the base of the figure. Doors and windows are scattered throughout the background, creating a very shallow picture space.
  Louiz Kierkebjerg Nielsen. Many Rooms. 2015. Screenprint, embossed etching, paper cut.
For more information, see:
I go to prepare a place for you, Jesus told the disciples. But where I'm going...there is room for you. One day you will follow me there. On that day I'll be there to welcome you.