Sunday, November 26, 2017

Isaiah 64.1-9: Rain, Steam, Speed

The words of the prophet Isaiah are featured the first three weeks of Advent in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. For Advent 1B, the specific text is Isaiah 64:1-9. In this passage Isaiah prays that God will tear open the heavens, come down, and perform the awesome deeds for which God is known. Those awesome deeds seems more frightening than comforting: the ground shakes, nations tremble. The prophet offers the descriptive parallel of water made hot enough to boil. The combination might truly be terrifying.

Though it does not especially look like it, English painter J.M.W. Turner captured an experience that was literally as ground-shaking as the prophet calls for. The painting Rain, Steam, Speed captures a time when the railroad was changing England. Where development of cities and civilization had previously required access by navigable waters, the railroad made it possible for industry to develop in non-waterside locations. Goods and people could be transported by the railroad. But Turner gives the train more symbolism than that.
J.M.W. Turner. Rain, Steam, Speed. c. 1844. London: National Gallery. 
For Turner, the train tears through the landscape, a dark gash against blue and gold. The bridge and train separate a man in a boat on the river (to the left of the bridge) from a farmer plowing his field (to the right of the bridge). At the left is the increasingly irrelevant road bridge that crosses the river. The boat is powered by the man; the plowing is powered by the animals. The train, of course, is powered by steam. Small bits of red and white paint on the engine are not realistic - there was no way to see through to the engine's firebox. But those paint smudges symbolize the fire that burns, causing water to boil and turn to steam which is harnessed, powering the locomotive.

The train thunders across a bridge (traditionally identified as the Maidenhead railway bridge, across the Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead). Passengers sit in open-air cars behind the engine. They can feel the mist of the steam and the rain as they travel at 50 heart-stopping, breathtaking miles an hour.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Mountains quaking, fire kindling, water boiling. And God's presence is known. Heart-stopping. Breathtaking.

You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

One of the details that easily escapes notice in the painting is the rabbit. Yes, there is a rabbit. It is running directly in front of the train. What exactly does the hare mean? Is nature going to be vanquished - or at least forced to succumb to "progress"? Is technology about to run over the rabbit? Have we been delivered into the hand of our iniquity? Or is the rabbit still faster than the train? Can we see it as God working for those who wait for God?
Rain. Steam. Speed. Torn heavens and quaking earth. Kindled fire and boiling water. And the first Sunday as we wait for the God who is to come. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

For thoughts on the gospel lesson for Advent 1B, click here.
For additional thoughts on the impact of steam and the earth, click here or on the Facebook link below.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24: The Persistence of Sheepery

Reign of Christ marks the last Sunday in the lectionary year. The next week we start a new liturgical year and a new lectionary year (B). For this final Sunday in A, the reading from Hebrew scripture returns to the world of...sheep (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24).

Through the year, scripture tells of lost and found sheep, of sheep gone astray, and of sheep in God's pastures. In hundreds of references, sheep have been held up as models and examples. Sometimes good examples, sometimes not so much. Sheep have been stand-ins for the people of God. They have been described as "without blemish". They have been sacrifice and economic source. They have been the means of atonement and the main course at the feast. They have been tithe of the people and practice for future kings. They have been everywhere.

And now the year ends...with sheep. Most folks may think more of bones than of sheep when considering the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, but God's message here is every bit as life-affirming as the moment with the dry bones. The affirmation is possible mostly because the scripture passage isn't so much about the sheep as about the shepherd.

God says: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.

And that is how the liturgical year ends: with the shepherd gathering the flock. Scattered, hungry, lost, the sheep are gathered again, are fed, and are rested by God who is their shepherd. Maybe that is the best way to end a year: remembering that though human beings may perpetually be sheep, God has promised to be our shepherd.

The illustration is by German-born illustrator Michael Sowa. Exact source of the illustration is unknown. Sowa has illustrated Sowa's Ark: An Enchanted Bestiary and illustrated A Bear Called Sunday and The Little King December. His movie credits include Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Amelie. His work is available in posters and card on the internet. 

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Reign of Christ A, click here.  
For news from the art world (which is related to the themes of the Reign of Christ), click here (which should take you directly to the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Matthew 25.14-30: It's the Dog

The gospel reading for Proper 28(33)/Pentecost 24A is a parable. Specifically, it is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The master entrusts three servants with eight talents before he goes on a trip. When the master returns, he asks for an accounting of the money. Two of the three servants have multiplied the master's money. The third, described as worthless, is cast out.

Various artistic versions of the subject include additional figures (a bookkeeper, for example) and interesting settings (contemporary with the artist's time, for example). Swiss artist Eugene Burnand has used only the four men mentioned in the text and has set the parable in a classic, but timeless, setting. Between the three columns evenly spaced behind the men, are lightly drawn leaves, branches and landscape.

The three servants face the master. One servant holds a fully filled bag in his hands, presumably the original talents given him along with the additional profit he turned. A second servant stands behind him. We don't see his hands or his accounting or much of anything from him. The third servant, however, telegraphs his suspicion - or perhaps resentment? - of the master by watching from under a lowered brow as he stands with his arms crossed over his chest.

The master stands at the left of the composition with his right hand outstretched, preparing to reach for the money that is coming to him. The artist has made the master slightly taller than the first servant, but the gulf in the relationship is painted as horizontal rather than vertical. The composition doesn't reinforce a hierarchical imbalance of power as it would have if the master towered over kneeling servants.

One rather unique detail of Burnand's telling of the story is the dog in the composition. The dog is between the master and the servants. It appears that the dog has walked in with the master, whose left hand rests on the dog's head. The dog has stopped slightly ahead of the master and is looking up and back and the older man. Why is the dog there? Is the dog just another "good and faithful servant" to the master? "Fido" does, of course, share a root with the word for faithful. Is the dog there as a character reference for the master? The dog is looking up at the master with an expression that seems to be one of calmness and trust rather than cowering and fear. Remember the advice to never trust a person who doesn't love dogs, but always trust a dog when they don't like a person. Is this dog there to say that this master - for all his demands for profit and casting out into places where teeth are gnashed - can be trusted?

Image above: Eugene Burnand (1850-1921). The Talents. For Musee-Eugene-Burnand, click here
For thoughts related to the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.
For an additional image of Deborah, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Matthew 25.1-13: How to Stay Awake

Keep awake, for you do not know the day or the hour. That's Jesus' parting line in the gospel reading for Proper 27A(32A)/Pentecost 23A (Matthew 25:1-13). How do you keep awake? Count sheep? Drink coffee? Set an alarm to go off regularly?

The ancient writer Pliny, in The Natural History (Book X. Chapter 30), writes: "During the night, also, they (cranes) place sentinels on guard, each of which holds a little stone in its claw: if the bird should happen to fall asleep, the claw becomes relaxed, and the stone falls to the ground, and so convicts it of neglect. The rest sleep in the meanwhile, with the head beneath the wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other: the leader looks out, with neck erect, and gives warning when required."

Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds. Southern England (Salisbury?). Harley 4751 fol. 39. 2nd quarter of the 13th century. London: British Library.
In the manuscript illustration, the sentry bird is the only one with eyes open. As described by Pliny, the sleeping cranes are each standing on one leg, though all five birds have their heads above their bodies. This is not the case in the manuscript illumination below, where all the birds have "craned" their necks. The sentry crane looks up, while the sleeping cranes have tucked their heads under their wings. The sleeping cranes here are standing on two feet. The sentry crane holds the stone in its claw. 
Bestiary. Manuscript (Sloane MS 3544). 1225-1275. London: British Library.
Pliny's description echoes Aristotle's text from several centuries earlier. In History of Animals, Aristotle writes: When they settle down, the main body go to sleep with their heads under their wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other, while their leader, with his head uncovered, keeps a sharp look out, and when he sees anything of importance signals it with a cry (Book IX.X.).

Who are the people we might identify as our "sentry cranes"? They are the ones who remain awake even as the rest of us sleep. They are the ones who cry out to warn us of impending danger.

For thoughts on the gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For another tie between cranes and a gospel story on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, click here..