Monday, December 25, 2017

Isaish 61.10-62.3: Off the Top of Your Head

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. That is how the Christmas 1B reading from Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 61:10-62:3) ends. Crown and diadem. It's a parallelism like many others in scripture, especially in poetry: The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and those who live in it (Psalm 24:1). But is there a difference between crown and diadem? And do the choices of those words mean something for how we hear that scripture?
Two different words are used in the Hebrew. Crown is עֲטֶ֥רֶת, a feminine noun translated crown across scripture. The word for diadem is וּצְנִ֥יף, a masculine noun that is translated as diadem, hood, mitre, even turban. The root of both concepts is the same as that for the English words: something worn on, around, or across a person's head. Crown is from the Latin corona "crown," originally "wreath, garland," related to Greek korone "anything curved, kind of crown." Diadem is directly from Latin diadema "cloth band worn around the head as a sign of royalty," from Greek diadema, from diadein "to bind across," from dia- "across" with dein "to bind," related to desmos "band".

Crown, diadem, tiara (headdress worn by Persian kings and by men of rank, from Latin tiara, from Greek tiara, of unknown origin)...who doesn't want one of those? Napoleon Bonaparte decided to give himself a crown. He had demanded the Pope attend the coronation ceremony as Emperor, but when the moment came to put the crown on his head, Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head. The sketch here was drawn by Jacques Louis David, who attended the coronation and created finished paintings of other episodes of Napoleon's rise to Emperor.
J.-L. David. Napoleon Crowning Himself Emperor. 1805. Drawing. Paris: Musee du Louvre.
There is one not-so-small detail in the scripture that is worth noting. The crown isn't something that the people of God get. It is something the people of God are. The crown - a very visible sign of someone of rank and power isn't going to be ours in this text. We might have expected that with the early verses that described festive wedding attire. We would wear a garland...we would wear a crown. But that is not the case. Instead we - the people of God - will be God's crown. 

Isaiah describes a number of attributes of the time when God's people become God's crown: there is righteousness (tsedakah, translated vindication) paired by turn with salvation and praise. All is right on that day. God's gifts have transformed the world in such a way that everyone can see, and from what God has planted have grown righteousness and praise - the righteousness and praise of the people of God. That's when we are a crown in God's hand. 

At the end of any year, we tend to look back at where we have been and look around at the world as it is now. When we reflect on our own actions, are we seeking crowns for ourselves or are we working to transform this world according to God's will? Do our actions reflect the righteousness (definitely not the same as self-righteousness) that God has planted in our world? Are righteousness and praise of God spring forth in this world? When they do, then we will be a crown in God's hand.

For two considerations appropriate for the Epistle reading for Christmas 1B (Galatians 4:4-7) and the turning of the year, click here or on the Facebook link below.

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Christmas 1B (Luke 2:22-40), click here.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas: It was, then, not a dream

The story is so familiar. Luke's gospel tells of the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. It has been depicted countless times. But every version nuances the story in a particular way.

The version here is by American artist and illustrator N.C.Wyeth. Known for his illustrations for books like Treasure Island and Robin Hood, Wyeth also provided illustrations for short stories in magazines like Scribner's and Woman's Day and for products like Coca-Cola. The illustration here was one of two Wyeth illustrations that accompanied "The Stable of the Inn" in the December 1912 issue of Scribner's (Vol. LII, No. 6).

The short story, by Thomas Nelson Page, opens with Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem. The first illustration shows the couple on a rest stop, where they first encounter the shepherds they will see again. The second illustration is this: a scene in a cave where animals are stabled. But rather than a home for animals and feed, this stable is the birthplace of a baby who casts a most remarkable light.
Wyeth has made light the most pronounced and unique detail in this telling of the story. The light closest to the baby is white light. In the physics of light, white light is created by the presence and full blending of all wavelengths on the visible spectrum. Each wavelength is a different color of light.  The collection of colors becomes visible when the light passes through a prism and the wavelengths are fractured into their different lengths (colors).

Moving out from the baby in Wyeth's painting, the light blends from one color of the visible spectrum to another. Warm yellow becomes orange before changing again to a red. From red the light becomes red-violet before transitioning into violet and blue-violet, edging into the blue of the dawn outside the cave. Many color.

In this season of the year, the length of days has just turned. The shortest day of the year gives way (today!) to a day where the sun shines just a little bit longer today than it did yesterday. And it will shine a little longer each day. In this season of holy days, our candles offer light to a world that walks in darkness, and we wait for the light to shine on us. It is not a dream. It is a sign.

For additional Christmas blog posts, click here.
For additional Facebook thoughts, click here  or here 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16: Building or Growing

David wants to build a house for God. After all, God's people are settled in their land. God - who tabernacled with the people in the wilderness - should get to settle down, too. That's where we find ourselves in the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3B (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16). The "Who's on First" nature of the conversation reveals two different approaches to establishing a house.

David intends to build God a house. A grand temple. A cathedral. Ultimately his son will be the one to do that, but David has the intention. Bricks, mortar, stone, doors, doorposts, a roof. David wants to construct a building appropriate for the God of creation. It's how humans think.

God has a different thought. God will create the house of David through growth - children, grandchildren, and, ultimately, a baby born to Mary and her husband Joseph (who was of the house and lineage of David).

The ultimately-constructed house for God is a visual for another day. The house of David that is grown by God finds familiar form in the Advent season: the Jesse Tree. Jesse, the father of David is usually depicted at the root of the tree (see Isaiah 11:1...A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots). On the Jesse Tree are images or symbols of the descendants of David, who are also the ancestors of Jesus: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk. The Jesse Tree also looks back to earlier Biblical characters: Moses, Ruth, Gideon, Noah, Rahab.

Shown here are two different artistic visions of the Tree of Jesse. The top image is a 12th-century stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral in France. Jesse is at the root with a series of humans sit on the trunk of the tree (like Zacchaeus, maybe?), proceeding in an orderly fashion up to Jesus who sits at the top of the tree with a dove descending on his head. The tree shape is reminiscent of a pine or palm or other tree with a straight trunk and less emphasis on branches. No doubt the design was influenced by the space available in the lancet window of the Gothic cathedral.

The bottom image is a Netherlandish one attributed to the circle of artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans dated c. 1500. Jesus' ancestors are perched on tree branches in a variety of poses: kneeling, standing, ankles crossed, with a falcon on one arm. The figures are dressed in striped hose and embroidered tunics that probably have more in common with the kings of Geertgen's day than with those of Jesus' or David's day. The top of Geertgen's tree is crowned with a blond Mary holding a blond baby Jesus on her lap.

"I will make you a house," David says to God.
"No," God says, "I will make you a house."
David would have built.
God chose to grow.

For Chartres Cathedral, click here. For the circle of Geertgen Tree of Jesse (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum), click here.

For another architectural element that links the ideas of buildings and David and the infant Christ, see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. 

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Advent 3B (Luke 1:26-38), click here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Isaiah 61.1-11: Future, No Future

The prophet Isaiah is speaking of the year of the Lord in the reading for Advent 3B (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11). God's spirit has landed on the prophet with instruction to bring good news, to bind up, to proclaim liberty and release. It's good news, concluding with praise and exultation. And who would expect anything else? Expecting all those good things is as natural as dressing up for a wedding, or seeing marigolds grow where marigold seeds were planted.

Isaiah's imagery is vivid. We feel the joy of release and liberty. We touch the roughness of the oak tree and understand its power. We hear the hum of machinery as buildings are rebuilt. We don't smell the lingering acridness of ashes, instead we smell the freshness of a laurel wreath.

Well, that's what Isaiah says. Caspar David Friedrich uses some of the same elements as Isaiah but tells a different story in his painting Abbey in the Oakwood. The painting, like many of Friedrich's, has humans and human-made elements in small proportion to the size of the painting. The majority of the canvas is filled with the vastness of nature.

The mood of the painting is opposite that of the Isaiah reading. "Good news" does not appear to be immanent in this scene. There are mourners in the picture: a line of figures, perhaps monks, are walking toward the graveyard where a newly dug grave is a gash in the earth. There is no oil of gladness anywhere in sight. The ancient ruins (these are presumably Gothic ruins, which were the fashion centuries before Friedrich painted) are not being rebuilt. There are oaks, but they are dormant for winter, if not dead. They are not the best representatives of God's glory
Caspar David Friedrich. Abbey in the Oakwood. 1809-1810. Berlin: Nationalgalerie.
A consensus interpretation of all these elements is uncertain. There seems to be agreement on the prominence of death as a theme, but is it the death of the old ways, the death of the church, the death of Germany or even the death of the artist? About this painting Friedrich wrote: Now I am working on a great picture in which I intend to depict the secrets of the grave and the future [...] Below, with snow-covered tombs, and burial mounds, are the remains of a Gothic church, surrounded by ancient oaks. The sun has set, and in the twilight the sun rises above the ruins, the evening star and the moon the first quarter. Thick fog covers the earth, and, even if one clearly sees the upper part of the masonry, the forms, downwards, ever more uncertainly, and indefinitely become the forms, until at last everything, the nearer the earth, is mistaken."(quoted in: H Börsch-Supan, Berlin 1810, in: Kleist Yearbook, Berlin 1987, p. 75).

Though difficult to see, there are two small lights, presumably candles, behind the crucifix in the church ruin. These two small points of light may be a sign of a future and a hope, but they are such a small part of this pictorial world. Are those two small candles enough to proclaim that there is a future? Did Isaiah's audience feel even those two candles' worth of hope as they said good-bye to Jerusalem? Can such small moments of hope and future carry any of us today who look around the world and understand that all is not well?

For an image of hope and future that is both Friedrich and Isaiah, click here or on the Facebook link below.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Advent 3B, click here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11: The Road

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 2B is a familiar reading from the prophet Isaiah. In the text, the subject, perceived by some as literal and by others as metaphorical, is road-building. The landscape is to be leveled so that a way for the Lord can be made. Low-lying places are to be raised. High ground is to be flattened. Stony patches are to be smoothed out.

Such accomplishments are expected in modern road-building. A drive today through mountains requires fewer hairpin turns that find a car and its passengers clinging to the edge of a precipice. Today's interstate highways are multi-lane, comfortably wide, and carved through mountains rather than ascending and descending the full height of the mountain.

The commonness of contemporary road quality was not always the case. The 1375 Catalan Atlas includes the image of a group of travelers on the Silk Road. Identified as both a generic caravan and Marco Polo and his traveling party, the travelers ride horses along the road that ran connected East and West, making trade possible. The cartographer, Abraham Cresques, has drawn a stony roadbed along which mounted and walking travelers make their way.
Abraham Cresques. Catalan Atlas. 1375. Bibliotheque Nationale. Paris, France. 
The so-called Silk Road is actually a network of trade routes rather than a single road. Other well-known roads connected to or intersected and were part of the network as well. One of those other roads was the Persian Royal Road, which ran from Susa to the Aegean Sea - more than 1600 miles. Alexander the Great used the road built by Darius I. A series of relay stations equipped with fresh horses made it possible to cover the route that crossed the Persian Empire within days rather than months. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the royal messengers who rode this route that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Why did God need a road? In the ancient near East it was common practice for images of gods to be paraded through the streets and along royal roads (read Isaiah 46:7 for a description of one such procession). For the nation of Israel, however, the road is prepared not for an inert statue. Rather it is prepared for the God who has created the world and moves in it. The "new thing" that Israel is about to experience won't be important because it highlights the efforts of human laborers (or divine beings!) as they build a road. The "new thing" is because the God who moves will once again enter into the life of the nation and in that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. And all people will see it together.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Advent 2B, click here.

Find out about another road through the Middle East on this week's Facebook post