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.

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