Sunday, September 24, 2017

World Communion Sunday: A Host of Breads and Circuses

The first Sunday in October is celebrated by some Christian denominations as World Communion Sunday. Originating in the 1930s, out of the Division of Stewardship at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, the day was meant to unite Christians around the world as everyone came to Christ's table. The day, first called Worldwide Communion Sunday by Shadyside pastor Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, was slow to grow. It was during World War II that more congregations and denominations caught the spirit of the day as they sought to unite a fragmented, divided and warring world.

The provision of bread is found throughout scripture as a demonstration of God's providence and care: from Abraham's and Sarah's baked cakes offered to three strangers to Christ's breaking of bread with the pilgrims at Emmaus, from the unleavened bread of the Passover to the institution of the Lord's Supper by Paul. God provides the gift of daily manna in the wilderness, and Jesus provides his followers with the example of praying for "our daily bread".

Bread, in all its flavors and forms, is a dietary staple around the world. Breads are made with local grains in varying proportions. Some breads are long, skinny loaves. Others are round, ball-shaped loaves. Crusts can be thick and golden or crackly and crunchy. Chewy sourdough or fluffy sandwich bread. The varieties of bread are endless.

Bread has also been used by nations and governments as a symbol of their own providence, as a rallying cry for patriotism, as a criticism of others, as a call to sacrifice, as a tool for political control. The Roman poet Juvenal criticized the Roman citizens of his day (c. 100 CE) as having abandoned their historic civic duties and caring only for "bread and circuses" (panem et circenses) - the free grain and populist entertainments that were the means of acquiring political power in his day. As we observe World Communion Sunday 2017, consider the messages and meanings of the posters below in their own time and in ours.

Posters top to bottom:
World War I home front poster. Don't Waste Bread. UK.
1938 poster for General Franco's nationalists. Por La Patria El Pan Y La Justicia (For the Nation, Bread and Justice). Spanish. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
1932 election poster for German National Socialist Party. Work and Bread for all. Vote National Socialist. Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive #2/42/155.)

World War II poster. Economisez... (Save the bread. Cut it into thin slices...and use all the crust for soups.) France.

Did you know there is a Museum of Bread Culture?

Find a reflection on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 21(26)A/Pentecost 17A here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, an ancient image for World Communion Sunday. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Matthew 20.1-16: Vineyard Work

Is it propaganda? Absolutely. Which doesn't make it a necessarily wrong interpretation. Just an advantageous one. The gospel reading for Proper 20(25)A/Pentecost 16A is Matthew 20:1-16. In that text Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who pays wages by the person rather than by the hour.

In the parable, four different groups of workers are hired, and the group hired last - just before quitting time - is paid the same wages as the group that started work at sunup. Is that fair? No, according to the early bird workers.

The early workers, the older brother from the prodigal son story...probably most of us can understand how it feels to have given everything you had, done everything you thought was right only to find yourself on what you perceive as the unfair end of the deal. However, most of us have also probably been the recipient of some grace along the way.

That's what Lucas Cranach the Younger was painting in his work "The Vineyard of the Lord": grace. Or folks who had received some of it anyway. The parable is transported to 16th-century Germany in this interpretation of the story. The vineyard is planted on a hill; the workers are industrious. But the workers on the left, Roman Catholic clergy and religious, are exhausting the ground and proving to be poor caretakers of the vineyard. At the conclusion of their day, they march out of the vineyard, following the Pope. In contrast, on the right, leaders of the Protestant Reformation - including Martin Luther - provide loving care for the vineyard. Below them, at bottom right, is Paul Eber and his family (including thirteen children, those who died as infants are dressed in white). Eber was a theology professor, hymn writer, and Bible translator. At his death in 1569, his children commissioned the painting as a memorial. The artist chose the theme.

At the left lower corner, the Lord of the vineyard comes to pay the wages to the workers. First paid are the Pope and his workers. The Pope holds a coin in his hand and appears to be asking for more. The Lord of the vineyard holds up his hand, rejecting the demand for additional wages.

The painting is propaganda. Martin Luther clears the ground with a rake in the center of the composition. Other Reformers (all identifiable) work beside him. They are the ones who came late to work but were given the same pay as those who worked a full day. They are portrayed as humble, continuing to work rather than demanding their pay from the Lord.

What the painting may fail to show, though, is that all the workers were unworthy of their Lord's generosity. Those who came late in the day were unworthy because they really didn't earn their pay. Those who worked all day are unworthy because they were dissatisfied with what God gave them. At the heart of the story is the truth that both sets of workers are dependent on the goodness and generosity of the Lord.

And so are we.

Lucas Cranach the Younger. Epitaph for Paul Eber: The Vineyard of the Lord. 1569. St. Mary's Church, Wittenberg. For St. Mary's see:
For a contemporary take on manna and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For a note on the background of Cranach's painting, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Exodus 14.19-31: God and Nations

Moses stands with the people on the edge of the water. The angel and the pillar of cloud have moved from in front of the people to behind them - between the people and the army of Pharaoh. What happens next shows the power of God, even in the face of a powerful nation. It's the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 19(24)/Pentecost 15A (Exodus 14:19-31, with the alternate reading being Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21). The alternate reading follows the actions of the Hebrew reading and are the focus of this essay.

The texts are at a moment in Israel's history when they are a nation without land. While they lived in Egypt they were loyal to the pharaoh, but as times changed and leaders changed and their status in the land changed, they realized that the nation of Egypt would not provide for them. When God leads them to freedom, they are meant to understand that God provides in ways that an earthly kingdom cannot.

So it's a little ironic that this story of God's people untangling from an earthly nation gets retangled centuries later. The manuscript illustrations shown here are from an eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript. In the illustration, Miriam and the women dance in a circle around eight musicians.

You may have to look twice to see the outer circle as people. The circle looks like an abstract pattern on first glance. Each of the knob-like shapes on the outside of the circle is actually the hat of one of the women. Further abstract shapes (in gold) are created as the ground between each figure and the sleeves of their garments.

The long sleeves are one of the signs that God's people have become entangled again with an earthly government. Byzantine people believed that the emperor was given his power by God and represented God on earth. The emperor's court, then, was the earthly image of God's heavenly court. The women in the circle here are shown in the style of court dress in the late eleventh century. Here the elite dance in a circle.
In other eleventh-century Byzantine manuscripts, this same exaggerated court sleeve is worn by David as he dances before the ark.

The stories of Miriam's dance and David's dance are often intermingled. Here there are musicians who are not mentioned in the Exodus text but are identified in the story of the ark coming to Jerusalem (I Chronicles 13-15). The artist has provided more details for Miriam and her company of dancers than the writer of scripture did.

How do we consider this illustration? One way is to understand that women throughout history have metaphorically and actually danced their joy when God's plan saves. They have worn the clothes of their day, circled up and danced with each other to celebrate and acknowledge what God has done. This happens to be an illustration from Constantinople in the eleventh century.

A second way to look at this is that once again, humanity has tangled itself up in conflating their government as God's government. The Israelites were not to put their trust in Egypt (no matter how much they missed the food). They were to understand that as God's people they followed God, relied on God, trusted God, looked to God. They were not to put their trust in earthly powers, even (especially?) their own. But they have, no doubt encouraged to do so by the Emperor.

The Byzantine Empire, like the kingdom of Egypt, like all earthly governments, will one day come to an end. But the dance of God goes on.

(Top) Miriam Dancing. 1059. Written in Constantinople. Vatican Graeci 752; folio 449v. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticani.
(Bottom) The Most Eminent Ladies of the Court, Tenth and Eleventh Century. Plate 17 from By the Emperor's Hand: Military Dress and Court Regalia in the Later Romano-Byzantine Empire by Timothy Dawson and Graham Sumner. 2016.
For thoughts on the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 18:21-35), click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook: the parable of the unmerciful servant. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Matthew 18.15-20: But He's a Ghost

Wherever two or three are gathered together, I am there among them. That's the final verse in the gospel reading for Proper 18(23)A/Pentecost 14A (Matthew 18:15-20). The concept is familiar and comforting. Jesus is with his followers, even when they are in small groups. But, apparently, Jesus is always ghostly, see-through, transparent when he is with his followers.
J. Doyle Penrose. Presence in the Midst. 1916.
James Tissot. Two or Three Gathered in my Name. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum. 
Why do you suppose that this ghostly Jesus is the symbol of presence? Is this how you imagine the presence of Christ? What other ways can you picture - or feel - the presence of Christ?

For thoughts on the Exodus passage for this week, click here. For a thought on the Romans passage about love doing no wrong to a neighbor, click on Art&Faith Matters Facebook