Sunday, December 30, 2018

Matthew 2.1-12: Look! Up in the Sky!

The story of Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) is, in one sense, about a follow a matter how matter how far.* That star that guided the magi has long been the subject of speculation and investigation by scientists and theologians and poets and dreamers. The months of December 2018 and January 2019 have seen (or will see) several astronomical events. On December 22, the night after the 2018 winter solstice, a full moon (the "Cold Moon") lit up the sky. On the morning of December 21, Mercury and Jupiter rose together. The peak of the Ursids meteor showers occurred during the same several days.

On January 20-21, 2019, skywatchers in the Americas, Greenland, Iceland, western Europe and western Africa will see a Super Blood Wolf Moon eclipse. This will be the last total lunar eclipse until May 26, 2021. The full moon is called a supermoon as it will appear bigger and brighter in the sky. As the shadow of the earth moves between the sun and the moon, earth's shadow will cover the moon, the sun's light will bend toward the moon, turning it blood red. It is called a Wolf Moon because it is the first full moon in January.
Giotto di Bondone. Adoration of the Magi. 1303. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. 
In 1303 Giotto di Bondone covered the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel with two fresco cycles. One  tells the life of Jesus; the other, the life of Mary. Giotto's composition for the Adoration of the Magi includes the Bible's Star of Bethlehem but portrays it as a comet...with a tail as big as a kite. Halley's Comet had been visible in the sky during November and December of 1301. The artist was no doubt influenced, even inspired, by the heavenly activity, even two years later when he began the Scrovegni frescoes. The comet streaks across the sky leading the eye of the viewer to a point directly over the place where Jesus is. Just like in the Bible story.

The European Space Agency returned the favor when they launched a space probe whose mission was to study the nucleus of Halley's Comet. Launched in July 1985 and coming within 370 miles of the nucleus in March 1986, the probe was named Giotto. Giotto's on-board color camera took photos of the comet.

The Psalmist (Psalm 19) reminds us that the heavens are telling the glory of God:
God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening.
Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.
God makes a huge dome for the sun—a superdome!
The morning sun’s a new husband leaping from his honeymoon bed,
The daybreaking sun an athlete racing to the tape.
That’s how God’s Word vaults across the skies from sunrise to sunset,
Melting ice, scorching deserts, warming hearts to faith. (The Message)

The magi were used to looking at the sky. Because of that they were among the first recorded to show to the world who Jesus was. Perhaps we should be looking up more than we do.

*Lyrics from "The Impossible Dream" from Man of LaMancha. Lyrics by Joe Darion.

For additional thoughts on Isaiah 60:1-6, click here.
For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:1-12, click herehere, and here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on eclipse to accompany the comet in the life of Jesus. The heavens are telling.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Luke 2.41-52: The People in Church

English artist William Holman Hunt painted "The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple" as part of his effort to revitalize Biblical subjects in art. He traveled to Jerusalem, used local people as models, and attempted to inject symbolism into every choice he made when painting Biblical subjects. From the story of Jesus at age twelve (Luke 2:41-52), Hunt has chosen to paint the moment when anxious parents Mary and Joseph are standing at Jesus' side. The artist has not focused on Jesus' discussion with the rabbis, but the rabbis' presence at the left of the canvas witnesses to the discussion that happened before parents and child were reunited.

Hunt's painting interprets this story as an exploration of how the old meets the new. On the frame, the left side's brazen serpent (Moses in the wilderness) is balanced with a cross (the new means of "healing"). At the top center the rising sun (Christ) eclipses the light of the moon (the Torah). In the painting itself, outside the room where the conversation is happening, workers are completing the physical building of the temple and a blind man sits on the steps. Meanwhile, on the gold plate behind the head of Jesus is an inscription in Latin and Hebrew: And the LORD, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple (Malachi 3:1).

Seven rabbis sit in the covered porch surrounded by their aides and attendants, including a group of musicians. The group of religious officials wraps around behind the three members of the Holy Family. Though the group visually moves behind Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the family is not really embraced by them. The rabbis in the lower left represent different responses to Jesus. The rabbi closest to us has his right arm wrapped around the Torah. His eyes appear sightless, so he literally cannot see what is before him and instead blindly clings to what he has known. Next to him (to the right of the rabbi for the viewer) sits a second rabbi holding a phylactery box (containing parchment scrolls on which are written verses of the Torah). This rabbi has turned his face, looking toward the blind rabbi and away from Jesus. He has chosen not to see Jesus but instead pats the hand of the (seemingly) older man as if to reassure him. The upper body of the third rabbi leans forward toward Jesus in a more aggressive position. We can imagine that he is the one who has been debating with Jesus and has only stopped the debate because of the arrival of Mary and Joseph. The fourth rabbi leans back, away from Jesus as if stepping back - disengaging - in order to judge. He wears a broad phylactery (remember Jesus' comment on broad phylacteries in Matthew 23:5) on his forehead, so that others may see his piety at all times. A fifth rabbi sits comfortably on his cushion, a bowl of something in his left hand, raised halfway to his mouth. A sixth rabbi leans around as if trying to see what Mary is saying to Jesus. The seventh rabbi sits almost Buddha-like, solid, comfortable and seemingly unmoving.

One of the men cannot see Jesus because he continues to cling to what he knows. Another is busy consoling the blind one. A third aggressively argues with Jesus. One sits back waiting, wanting to be seen as holy, several look satisfied with where and who they are and seem unwilling to take any action or any risk in order to respond to Jesus in a meaningful way.

It's too easy to make this about rabbis, though. If Jesus walked into your church building, what people would he meet? Those who cling to the culture they know rather than who Jesus is? People who are happy to hold on to religious things while reassuring others that nothing will change? Would Jesus find people who would argue with him about his teachings?  Would Jesus find people who are comfortable and satisfied with the status quo because it has benefited them, so they aren't interested in being stirred to actually do anything?

Twelve-year-old Jesus wasn't the kind of Messiah that the rabbis in the temple were expecting. And the artist himself drew parallels between these rabbis and clergy of his own day. But it isn't just about clergy. It's about all the people of God and how we respond when faced with Jesus, whatever his appearance.

Above: William Holman Hunt. The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. 1854-55. Birmingham (England) Museum and Art Gallery.

For additional thoughts on Luke 2:41-52, click here.
For further details on this painting, see this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Micah 5.2-5a: O Little Town of Antwerp

The prophet Micah points to Bethlehem as the place of origin of the one who will rule Israel (Micah 5:2-5a). When Micah is quoted in Matthew's gospel the description includes the clarification that though Bethlehem is small, it is "by no means least" among the tribes. By no means least, because from Bethlehem - the city of David - would come greatness. In fact, the path of God's saving plan will go right through Bethlehem. Which for Pieter Bruegel looks an awful lot like a 16th-century village in Flanders. The architecture, clothing, activities, and landscape transport us immediately to the artist's time.

The Census at Bethlehem shows a small town filled with people and activity in the middle of winter. People have returned to Bethlehem to be counted, and people who live in Bethlehem are going on about their daily lives. Firewood is being unloaded from a cart. A pig is being slaughtered. Children are skating on the frozen pond. Snowball fights are going on. People gather around an outdoor fire and stand in line outside a pub. In all the activity, you might miss the man with his carpenter's saw leading a donkey on which a woman in blue is riding.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Numbering at Bethlehem. Brussels: Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. 1566.
But that man and woman are the most important part of the picture. They are the means by which the salvation of the world will come from Bethlehem. And for Bruegel, the world that needs saving isn't just first-century Palestine. Bruegel includes details that echo the biblical story but are his contemporary experience. Though the painting refers to Luke's idea of a census or "numbering" bringing people to Bethlehem, there is in fact a tax collection going on at the window of the building on the left.
The collection of taxes by an occupying government was a familiar sight to Bruegel. At the time this picture was painted, Spain controlled the Netherlands. The Hapsburg kings who reigned in Spain levied heavy taxes not just on individuals but on the textile industry and on cities in the Netherlands in order to pay for Spain's ongoing wars. In Bruegel's painting the tax collector has hung out a sign with the double-headed eagle that was the emblem of the Hapsburg empire (detail above).

In addition to the contentious economic relationship between the Netherlands and Spain, there were also religious clashes between Roman Catholic Spain and an increasingly Protestant Netherlands. Philip II sent the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands to put down the religious rebellion. The Duke is said to have boasted that more than 18,000 Dutchmen died on the scaffold at his direction. Later estimates put the number of executions at 6,000. In a letter to his sister, Margaret of Parma, Philip II said that he would give up 100,000 lives (if he had them) to prevent the Protestant heresy from taking hold in the Netherlands (15 July 1562). In 1566 Bruegel painted a companion piece to the Numbering - Massacre of the Innocents - set in the same Flemish Bethlehem.

The Bethlehem of scripture was the same as Bruegel's village: no grand cosmopolitan place but a small town of ordinary people trying to live their ordinary lives while at the mercy of a government that controlled their lives. Nevertheless, the prophet assured Bethlehem that greatness was to come from her. And so it did. Do you live in Bethlehem?

For a poem that relates to this Bruegel painting, see this week's Art&Faith Matters post here.
For thoughts on Luke 1:39-45, click here.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Zephaniah 3.14-20: Reassembled

Sing, O Zion! Shout, O Israel! Rejoice, O Jerusalem! It's all good news from the prophet Zephaniah (3:14-20). God has removed all judgments, turned away the enemies, taken away disaster, gathered the lame and outcast, and dealt with all oppressors. Perfect. Everything is perfect, will be perfect. Just as it was before. The people have been restored to the land, and the land has been restored for the people. Their fortunes will be restored before their eyes.

But does it come back together exactly as it was before? I wonder sometimes if in reassembling, things don't fit in exactly the same way that they did before. God may be able to see people as justified and therefore no different than they had been before. But what happened to the people who were being gathered again because they had been "away from home"? Did they see things the same way as those who had been at home all along? Were they exactly the same people as they were when they left? Would they fit back in exactly as they had before?

In some ways, early Cubism was asking those same questions. Could you look at an object (or person) from multiple viewpoints and reassemble those views into one 2-dimensional work of art? In that early phase, sometimes gathered under the title of Analytical Cubism, artists dissected people and things, looking at them from above and below, from front and back, fragmenting the whole into individual glimpses. All of those glimpses were then put into one work of art. A wine bottle was painted looking down into the bottle, looking up through the bottle and looking at the side of the bottle as it sat on a table. A person's face was shown in profile and full-front at the same time.

Could Picasso paint a realistic face? Sure. See his self-portrait below left. But sometimes it's the elements that have been fragmented and reassembled that tell the story most fully. His portrait of Dora Maar below right was painted in June of 1941. Because of his notoriety, Picasso was one of the few "degenerate" artists who were allowed to live (reasonably) unbothered during the Nazi occupation of Paris. What would it say for Picasso to have lived in the midst of such a human nightmare and paint a lovely portrait of a woman sitting in a chair wearing a hat?
Pablo Picasso. (Left) Self-Portrait. 1896. Musee Picasso, Paris.
(Right) Woman Wearing a Hat, 9 June 1941. Musee Picasso, Paris.
Surely her face, which looks both left and right as if anticipating (fearing?) a knock on the door, and her hands clenched almost claw-like on the arm of a chair better tell the story of the life she and Picasso lived in Paris at this time - a life that was punctuated on more than one occasion by visits from the Gestapo and by the loss of friends whose lives were taken by the occupying army. What she has seen, what she has said, how she lives, all of this has been changed by the circumstances in which she is living. The pieces of her are still there, but they don't look like they did at the beginning of the war.

The prophet Zephaniah calls on Israel to sing and shout and rejoice and exult because the Lord was in her midst. Rejoice, Israel - land and people, politically and religiously - because you have been reassembled. During Advent, Christians look forward to the day that is to come - a day when God is again Emmanuel, with us, in our midst - when creation is put back together, the broken places healed, the rough places a plain. But what will we look like on that day?

There are plenty of people who discount Picasso's work - all Cubist work, in fact - because it "doesn't look realistic." But it's important to remember that Picasso - the creator of the piece - knew what he wanted to say and show. And he knew how to reassemble the elements to make the statement he wanted. Our task isn't to tell the creator what to do (or not do). Instead it is to try to understand what the creator is saying as the pieces are reassembled.

For additional thoughts on reassembling pieces into a whole, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 3:7-18, click here.
For thoughts on maps of Jerusalem and the presence of God, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page here.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Malachi3.1-4: Some Water...But Mostly Fire

Malachi 3:1-4 refers to two occupations to help people understand what it will be like when the Lord presence is in the temple. The references incorporate two of the four basic elements: fire and water. The work involving water is a launderer. God is like fuller's soap, Malachi says. For more on the symbolism and reality of laundry and fuller's soap, click here.

But in addition to the water-related laundering parallels, there are also metalsmithing parallels. God's arrival and presence, Malachi writes, will be like a refiner's fire. Metalsmiths use fire for several different tasks. The fire is used for melting metals so that the liquid metal can be poured into molds. But before the molding process, fire can be used to purify the metal. Silver and gold can both contain impurities. Sometimes the impurities add interest. For example, copper ore mixed in with gold ore creates what we call "rose gold." However, sometimes the desired outcome is pure gold or silver, and to get that, the impurities must be removed.

The two images here are of metalsmiths in their workspaces separated by several hundred years. The top image is a photograph taken by William J. Carpenter in 1915 of a Navajo silversmith by his fire. The bottom image is St. Eligius, patron saint of goldsmiths. Notice the similarities of the tools. The Navajo silversmith has a fire and St. Eligius has a very ornate furnace to refine the metals with which they are working. The tools in the later image are very similar to those in the earlier image: tongs, hammer, anvil, engraving burins, mallets, large scales, weights, ceramic furnace, blow pipes. Design has changed over time, of course, but the methods have remained the same - which offers contemporary hearers the opportunity to understand the text and to see it in action.

We may tend to think of fire more at Pentecost or in the new fire of the Easter vigil than we do in Advent. But the candles on the Advent wreath can remind us that God works to refine us in this season as well. 

Top image: William J. Carpenter. Navajo Silversmith. c. 1915. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
Bottom image: Master of Balaam. St. Eligius in His Workshop. c. 1450. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rijksmuseum.

It's not a Christmas carol, but check Art&Faith Matters on Facebook to see when we sing about this refiner's fire image.

For thoughts on Luke's quotation of Isaiah (Luke 3:1-6), click here.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Jeremiah 33.14-16: A Righteous Branch

The promise of the righteous branch (Jeremiah 33:14-16) offers hope - to the original hearers of Jeremiah's speech on God's behalf and to us today. It is always a delight to see the first tender green leaves on a twiggy growth. But the hope that is conveyed by the prophet is only needed because the situation in which Jeremiah and his hearers find themselves seems...hopeless. That is, after all, when hope is needed most. There is no justice and righteousness in the land. But when that day comes...there will be one who will, like David, execute justice and righteousness throughout the land.

The image is similar in Isaiah's prophecy of a shoot that will come from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). There, too, will be the spirit of the Lord to judge with righteousness and give justice to the poor. Often we see images of a small shoot of green emerging from a crack in the stump of a tree. The sun shines on or through leaves the color of Granny Smith apples, setting up those leaves as the focal point. It is, indeed, the picture of hope for what (or who) is to come.

Anselm Kiefer. Wurzel Jesse (Tree of Jesse). Left: 1987. 95 x 51 inches. Private Collection. 
Right: 2008. Albertina Contemporary, Vienna, Austria. Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, branches coated with plaster, lead clothes and soil on cardboard and plywood, glazed.
Anselm Kiefer chose a different mood. His two versions of Wurzel Jesse (Tree of Jesse) offer a visual that seems to speak more to the situation of Jeremiah than do the brightly-colored, often gilded medieval illustrations of this subject. Kiefer uses (above left) palm root fibers and photography on lead to create a composition of neutrals in tones that seem to speak more to the promise of the growth of a branch than actual growth of green leaves and twigs. The version on the right, created more than a decade later, includes several garments made of lead toward the top of the composition. The images do not seem to lend themselves to thoughts of growth.

In the mood established by their color palette, Kiefer's works echo the images of the after-effects of wildfires. In photos we see charcoal stumps and scorched trunks and we wonder how a branch can come from this.

But the days are surely coming, says the Lord. And in those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David. In those days and at that time from Jesse's roots will come a branch that bears fruit. Promise.

One of the ways to mark the passing of the days of Advent is to create a Jesse Tree, whose ornaments remember the ancestors of Christ in Hebrew scripture. Another "tree" option is the Chrismon tree, found often in Christian churches. The ornaments on a Chrismon tree are symbols of and for Christ. See this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post for a tree-related Chrismon.

For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36, click here.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Reign of Christ: On Earth as In Heaven

My kingdom is not of this world. So says Jesus to Pilate (John 18:36). But we pray, Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Perhaps the core of what we know is that although Christ's kingdom is not of this world, having it in this world would transform this world. Living in that tension has offered opportunities for Christ's church to consider what that world would look like in this world.

"The church is not a building...the church is the people." So goes the children's song. However, in times past, the church building was as much intentional theological statement as building. The structure was designed to tell about the God who was worshipped there. I suppose the same is true today, though with perhaps less intention. Two particular ecclesiastical architectural traditions speak to Christ's kingdom on earth and in heaven.

Early Roman churches were often a basilica style. Basilica churches were rectangular, like the Roman civic building on which they were based. Basilicas were places where court cases were heard, where markets were held, and where meetings took place. At the east end of the basilica was an apse where Christian churches located the altar. The root of the Latin word basilica is the Ancient Greek βᾰσῐλῐκή (basilikḗ), from βᾰσῐλῐκὴ στοά (basilikḕ stoá, royal hall). One step further back linguistically is βασιλικός (basilikós, royal), from βασιλεύς (basileús, king, chief). By its very name, the basilica acknowledges that this place is related to some kind of kingdom.

A second, perhaps broader, understanding comes from the Orthodox tradition, whose buildings are designed to be the New Jerusalem. When a worshipper enters an Orthodox church it is to be as if entering heaven. Light enters from (usually) high windows, reflecting off gold in mosaics and icons, bouncing around the space and filling it with a golden glow. Thick, heavy walls are showered with rays of  light. In its most simple form, the church represents the idea of heaven and earth together.

(Top) Hagia Sophia. 532-537. Istanbul, Turkey.  (Bottom) S. Apollinare in Classe. Consecrated 549. Ravenna, Italy.
The basilica's single axis (usually east-west) allowed for a processional approach to the altar. The faithful moved along the life of faith toward the ultimate goal of heaven (symbolized by the altar under the domed apse) on this single axis. Orthodox churches offered multiple axes by combining the rectangular aspect of the basilica with the dome of the apse. Church builders shortened the basilica from a rectangle to a square to symbolize earth (think about phrases like "the four corners of the earth). This square form was crowned with a round dome, symbolizing heaven (think about the upside down bowl of the firmament). Heaven and earth merge in these worship spaces, giving the opportunity for worship to happen on earth as it is in heaven.

What does your worship space say about the kingdom of God?

For additional thoughts on the Reign of Christ, click here, here, or here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, illustrations of "Thy kingdom come."

Sunday, November 11, 2018

I Samuel 1 and 2: Hannah Did You Know?

The similarities between Hannah's song (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) are well-documented and analyzed. Both songs are spoken after the promise of the birth of a boy child. Both have themes of the coming of God's reign, turning this world upside down: the poor are raised up and the lowly are exalted. God is fully in control through the one who was chosen and anointed by God.

What is quite different about these two women's stories is "the other woman." Both Hannah and Mary, in the context of their pregnancy experiences, encountered another woman. These "other" women offered quite contrasting responses to Hannah and Mary.

Hannah must deal with Peninnah, also wife to Elkanah. Peninnah has children where Hannah has none. Peninnah's practice is to provoke Hannah, taunting her about her lack of children. Though Elkanah professes to love Hannah best, she is still subject to the stinging words of the other woman. In the manuscript illumination below, Elkanah, Hannah, Peninnah, and her children are on the road back home from Jerusalem.

The journey home is one scene on a page devoted to the story of Hannah. In the top left Elkanah has made his sacrifice and distributes portions to Peninnah and her children as well as to Hannah. Though Hannah may receive a double portion, the greater amount goes to Peninnah who receives portions for herself and her children. In the upper right we see Hannah weeping in the temple, where Eli believes she is drunk. In the lower right is the miracle: the birth of Samuel.

In the lower left panel, Elkanah, his two wives and his children all seem to be on the road home. Elkanah has a raised finger as if he is chastising Peninnah for her taunting of Hannah. Peninnah's children appear to be eating bread as they walk.

(Left) Hannah's Grief; Hannah's Prayer; The Road Home; Samuel. The Morgan Picture Bible (MS M.638, folio 19v). Paris, France. 1240s. Morgan Library, New York. (Right) Visitation. Book of Hours of Maréchal de Boucicaut. 1405-08. Manuscript (Ms. 2) Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris, France.

What a trial life must have been to Hannah before the birth of Samuel. Hannah, of course, longs for a child and has been unable to have one, a circumstance that Elizabeth would fully understand. Mary is unmarried (though betrothed) and finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Fortunately Mary's experience visiting her relative Elizabeth is entirely different from Hannah's difficulties. 

From the moment Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, she is greeted as one who has been blessed by God. Elizabeth acknowledges that "blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth understands that Mary will be "the mother of [her] Lord." There is affection and respect and support between the two women.

Hannah, too, has received a promise of sorts. Eli asks that God fulfill her petition - which does happen. Presumably Peninnah's comments either stop or cease to hurt Hannah. Her son is not with her daily, but she has fulfilled the promise she made to give her son to God. As Mary's story unfolds, she, too, will give up her son. And that is when her own soul will be pierced by sorrow.

For thoughts relating I Samuel 2:1-10 and Mark 13:1-8, click here.
For how Psalm 113 relates to the story of Hannah, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Ruth 3 and 4: Grandmother

The story of Ruth and Naomi culminates with Ruth's marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17) and the birth of Obed. Obed's son will be Jesse. Jesse's son will be David. And Ruth and Boaz will be forever remembered as the grandparents of Israel's greatest king. But the grandmother who may be happiest is Naomi, whose biological relationship to Obed may be fairly distant.

Remember that Ruth is Naomi's daughter-in-law - no biological relationship - though the two women have chosen to make a family as mother and daughter. Boaz is related to Naomi in some way, though scripture doesn't specify what that is. He is identified by Naomi only as "our kinsman."

And yet the women said, "A son has been born to Naomi." A son. To Naomi. It has to do with lines of descent and family trees, of course, and it's wonderful that Ruth has given the gift of (grand)motherhood to Naomi.
Michelangelo Buonarotti. Salmon, Booz, Obeth. Sistine Chapel ceiling. 1508-1512. Vatican City.
Michelangelo included this part of David's (and Jesus') family tree in the lunettes of the Sistine Chapel. The lunette on the south wall contains the names of Salmon, Boaz, and Obed (though Michelangelo records the versions Booz and Obeth). To the left of the name plaque a woman holds close her swaddled child. A breast protrudes through her garment, indicating that she has recently nursed the child. This could be Ruth or Naomi (Ruth 4:16). Either way, this figure group is a very tender one, strangely juxtaposed with the old man who seems to face a carved image of himself.* 

It's a beautiful thing, this making of families of the heart. It will happen again at the foot of the cross. Jesus says to Mary, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And a(nother) son has been given to Mary.

*The figure on the right has, sometimes, been identified as Boaz, but evidence to support that claim is weak. If not Boaz, though, the figure is difficult to identify.

What about the widow in Mark 8:38-44? Take a look at where she might have dropped her offering on this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

All Saints Day: On the Way to Holiness

Oh, Lord, we want to be in that number! When the saints go marching in, of course. And we are, at least symbolically, every time we walk into a church. The aisle(s) of a church offer us a way to think about the life of faith. Are we getting closer to our goal? Are we farther away? Of course, most of us are in the same place, the same pew, week after week, which might say something, too.

The church of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, is a basilica plan church (the footprint is a rectangle with a half-circle apse at the end opposite the door). The side walls (connecting the door wall and the apse wall) are covered with mosaic figures in procession toward the altar. On the left side the 22 female martyrs process from a representation of the city of Classe toward a group that includes Mary with the Christ Child on her lap and flanked by four angels. Their procession is led by the magi, identified by name as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. To the right is a procession of 26 male martyrs in a composition that echoes the opposite procession. These martyrs are led by Saint Martin as they move from the Palace of Theodoric toward a figure group that includes Christ seated on a throne again flanked by four angels.

(Top) South wall mosaics of male martyrs. (Bottom) North wall mosaic of female martyrs. Consecrated 6th century. 

The martyrs clothed in white and carrying their wreaths and palms may seem beyond our reach. Their exemplary lives of service and sacrifice and ultimate sanctification may seem unattainable. But these two mosaic processions do more than dishearten those of us living in this world. They also demonstrate for worshipers the idea of entering the building and, throughout life, moving toward the holy.

In the Reformed tradition, All Saints Day reminds us of God's work of sanctifying not just spiritual superstars but the whole people of God. We give thanks for the lives of believers whose lives were both ordinary and holy in this age and in every age. We give glory to God as we remember members of the community of faith who have died in the past year. And yes, we pray that we will be in that number when the saints go marching in.

For additional thoughts on All Saints, click here.
If you aren't focusing on All Saints this Sunday, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post about Ruth and Naomi.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Job 42.1-6, 10-17: Daughters

It is a truth universally acknowledged that throughout history, it was often better to be a son than a daughter. And better to be a first-born son than a second (or third!) son. The eldest son sometimes got everything, but more often than not, he received at least more than any other son. Daughters may have inherited their mother's jewelry and perhaps the family china or silver (unless the silver was monogrammed, which meant the oldest son's family would probably get it). It's interesting, then, that the writer of Job is careful to record that when his fortunes were restored, Job gave his three daughters an inheritance along with their brothers (Job 42:15).
William Blake. Job and His Daughters. 1799/1800. Pen and tempera on canvas. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
This is not the first time that daughters have inherited. Just before the Israelites cross into the Promised Land, Zelophehad's offspring bring a case before Moses who takes it to God. These offspring, five daughters, are protesting the practice of only letting sons inherit. Their request is that they be allowed to inherit portions of their father's estate along with their uncles. They argue that their father's name should not be lost to his tribe just because there are no male heirs.

God agreed. 7The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.’ (Numbers 27:7-11)

Zelophehad's daughters - Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah - are allowed to inherit in the absence of male heirs. But notice that Job's three daughters - Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-happuch - inherit alongside their brothers. Job's restored fortunes also mean a restored "flock of children." Job has seven sons to go along with his three daughters. In a reversal of usual practice, here the daughters are named while the sons remain just "seven sons." For these daughters the end of Job's story wasn't  restoration but a whole new array of possibilities for life.

For thoughts on the healing of Bartimaeus, click here.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Mark 10.35-45: Prepared for Whom?

It is for those for whom it has been prepared. That's what Jesus tells James and John when they ask to sit beside him in glory. To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. But it begs the question: For whom has it been prepared? 

In art, Jesus in glory seems to be most-often surrounded by a host of angels or by symbols of the four gospels (and remember their relationship to Ezekiel's creatures and the creatures in Revelation). Annibale Caracci's "Christ in Glory" (below left) has Peter on Jesus' right and John on Jesus' left. At least one of the brothers made it in that version. A search for "Jesus in Glory" or "Christ in Glory" often shows the Transfiguration - where Elijah and Moses flank Jesus. No disciple emerges as a favorite in those depictions.

Another thought process says that if Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, then God would be sitting on Jesus' left. The best candidate for whom would be on Jesus' right is his mother Mary, often depicted as the queen of Heaven. The rightful place for a queen is at the king's right hand. In the thirteenth-century mosaic shown here, Jesus is enthroned, with Mary standing at Jesus' right hand and St. Mark is at his left hand. The mosaic is located on the main portal of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. Again, James and John miss out. 
(Left) Annibale Carracci. Christ in Glory. 1597-1598. Florence, Italy: Palazzo Pitti. (Right) Main portal mosaic. c. 1250. Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Italy. 
There is, of course, a time in scripture where two people are given places on either side of Jesus. And though James and John promised that they could drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism, they probably didn't have this in mind. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. At least on the day of crucifixion they were the ones on Jesus' left and right. Is that something like the last being first?

For thoughts on Job 38, click here
For additional thoughts on the disciples' request for greatness, see this week's Facebook post. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Visibly Repaired

[Note: This is not lectionary-related, just thoughts about art and life through eyes of faith.]

If something is broken, it's broken. You can ignore it. But it's still broken. Perhaps in its broken state it is still valuable - monetarily or in its function or sentimentally. Perhaps it could be of value again if it were repaired. It may be the case that there is no value in fixing it, so it is best thrown away.

If you decide to keep this broken thing and repair it, you will need to decide to what extent it should be repaired. The appraisers on "Antiques Roadshow" make statements about this all the time. How much owners should invest in repairing and/or restoring their treasures. How much the value (monetary) of the object might increase if it is repaired or restored. How much would be too much to spend on repairing or restoring the object. It will be up to the owner to decide about the degree of restoration the object will see.

Kintsugi is a repair process in Japanese ceramic practice. Broken items are repaired with lacquer, and then the lacquer is brushed with gold powder. Far from blending in so as to be invisible, kintsugi incorporates the brokenness into the design of the vessel. The process accepts the brokenness as part of the history of the object. It's even possible that people would actually break whole things so that they could be repaired. What a remarkable thing that its beauty made the repair desirable.
Tea Bowl, White Satsuma ware. 17th century. Freer-Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC. 

With care and attention, broken things - people, relationships, nations - can be repaired. But let's not try to repair so that we can pretend the break never happened. Let's acknowledge the brokenness and then give our best efforts to make the repairs beautiful.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Job 1.1, 2.1-10: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

It's interesting to think about what is going on the world right now that will come to pass in the future. Seeds are being planted that will become next spring's flowers. People I don't yet know are moving through their lives on a path that will cross with mine next year...or five years from now. My next job is being readied for me...or maybe things are being orchestrated so that I will stay in my current position for the rest of my work life. You just never know what things are happening out of sight. Job will find that out (Job 1:1, 2:1-10).

Bartolo di Fredi was, in the second half of the fourteenth century, the most important painter in Siena, Italy. He had a large working studio and was a registered member of his town's Guild. He assisted with the commission to paint the Council Hall in Siena in 1361. Earlier, beginning in 1356, he had been commissioned to decorate the Collegiata (principal church) of San Gimignano - about 20 miles from Siena. The frescoes along the entire left aisle are his work. Given the descriptive title Scenes from the Old Testament, the work was signed and finished in 1367.

Two of those scenes illustrate episodes from the story of Job. This is one of them.
Bartolo di Fredi. God Gives Satan Permission to Tempt Job. 1367. Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Italy. 
In this scene, Job and Mrs. Job (both wearing crowns), along with some of the little Jobs are feasting and making merry. They sit at a table with gold cups and linen tablecloths. Musicians blast herald trumpets, play the bongos (or something like them), and touch the keys of a portative organ. Dogs look for the crumbs that fall from the master's table. Bread is distributed from the door of Job's house at the left of the composition. Three figures (servants? children? townspeople?) gaze down from the top of the composition at the wondrous feast and celebration happening in Job's house. Life is good for Job. He is living like a king and helping others, too.

In silent movies, when the action cuts from one scene or location to another, an intertitle would appear on-screen, giving the audience the information they needed. In westerns, one of the intertitles that often appeared was, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." While one character was living life, having adventures away from the ranch, things were still happening back on the ranch. Those things would often influence the main character's life and destiny. He or she would have to come back home to save the ranch from the swindlers or find the rustlers or rescue the one true love from a dastardly interloper.

Job is feasting and listening to music and enjoying family time. But meanwhile, up in heaven (or the upper left corner of Bartolo's fresco), God and the satan are having a conversation that will greatly impact Job's future.

People often say, "If I had known this was coming..." Imagine the traveler heading out of town, boarding the plane, settling in at the hotel. All the while not know that the next day would bring a broken ankle and a hospital stay in that far-away city. If I had known...

Do you wish you knew what was going on "back at the ranch" that would impact your future? Or is it ok if you don't know?

For thoughts on Mark 10.2-16, click here.
Psalm 8 and Hebrews 3:7 are the subject of this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click here.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Esther 7, 9: Not Narrative

Uses of the book of Esther for artists:
  • Reason to paint beautiful woman or a pageant of beautiful women.
  • Reason to paint scenes in a harem.
  • Reason to paint a wild party with drunken guests.
Those are generally the categories of paintings of Esther. There are some post-Holocaust connections drawn between Haman and the Nazis. There are some paintings of Vashti sitting alone in her room after refusing to display herself at the wild party with drunken guests. 

The episodes of the story of Esther are rich inspiration for artists. Images of Esther serve as an inventory of what counted for beauty in every era, style and nation that saw artists painting Esther. Her indictment of Haman is often very dramatic: her arm is outstretched - ramrod straight - as she points directly to the man who seeks to eliminate her people. 

Esther megillot (megillah is derived from the word for scroll; megillot is the plural form) traditionally are put on one roller - at the left-hand side - rather than two. The megillah shown here was illustrated by Israeli artist Ya'akov Agam about 1980. Rather than the typical scenes of an exotic foreign court, the artist has illustrated the megillah with abstract designs. Despite the second commandment, there are megillot with figurative illustrations. Agam, however, is known for his colorful, geometric work. He has used his signature style here for the story of Esther. 
Ya'akov Agam. Esther Scroll. c. 1980. Screenprint and ink on parchment. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
What is lost - or gained - by this approach to the story? Do you miss the costumes and drama? Do you appreciate the clean lines and vibrant color? 

OK...a little bit of the Esther narrative is showcased on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.  

For thoughts on Mark 9:38-50, click here

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Proverbs 31. 10-31: She Can Bring Home the Bacon...

If you are from an old-enough generation, you may remember the tv commercial (I'm assuming it was just a USA commercial, but I don't know...) in which a woman sang, "I can bring home the bacon...fry it up in a pan..." The song was related to "I'm a Woman," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and sung by Peggy Lee. The song begins, "I can wash out forty four pairs of socks and have 'em hangin' out on the line..." The refrain is "'Cause I'm a woman...W-O-M-A-N! I'll say it again." The woman described in Proverbs 31 begins to take on some of that superwoman aura. She seems to do it all. Home, family, business. Everything she touches turns to gold.

Are all women supposed to be the woman described in Proverbs 31? Can all women be that woman? Can any woman be that woman? Have we turned this aspirational woman into an unrealistic expectation? Even the writer has a sense of that question, asking "A capable wife who can find?" (NRSV) "A good woman is hard to find..." (MSG) If women are required to have all these accomplishments, we might be inclined to echo Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet when she remarks to Mr. Darcy that she is no longer surprised at his knowing only six accomplished women and rather wonders that he knows any at all.

In response to a culture that advocated for the idea that women could do nothing, Christine de Pizan (sometimes Pisan) wrote a manuscript called The City of Ladies. Written in response to comments about women by writers and philosophers like Matheolus (who wrote in his Lamentations that women were among God's worst creations), The City of Ladies was an encyclopedia of women who countered the stereotypes of women that were being repeated and published. Christine's book honored women for their faith, for their loyalty, for their works, for their learning, and for their intellect.

Christine herself might have been included as more than the narrator of City of Ladies. Married young into an arranged marriage, Christine and her husband had a happy marriage. After her father's death, Christine and her husband Etienne took responsibility for Christine's family. When Etienne died ten years later, Christine became responsible for her three young children and her mother. Christine found patrons for her writing, successfully (and singlehandedly) supporting her family.
 [Christine de Pizan lecturing.] Master of the Cite des Dames and workshop and Master of the Duke of Bedford. The Book of the Queen. British Library. Harley 4431, f. 259v. c 1410-c 1414. The manuscript, known as 'The Book of the Queen', includes Works by Christine de Pizan, assembled for Isabel (Isabeau) of Bavaria, queen consort of Charles VI of France, and produced under the author's supervision. Possibly some passages are in the hand of Christine de Pizan herself. 

Those good women might not be as hard to find as we think.

For thoughts on Mark 9:30-37, click here.

This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post considers biography and photography in light of Proverbs 31.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Proverbs 1.20-33: Wisdom Cries Out

Most of us have probably had occasion to see a street-corner preacher. Speaking loudly and sometimes reaching out toward passers-by, street preachers proclaim the message they have received from scripture. They call people to repent. They tell of God's love. They offer the rewards of heaven and the punishments of hell.

Wisdom is one of those preachers (Proverbs 1:20-33), shouting the consequences that are coming to the people who have turned their backs on her. I tried to tell you, she cries. I reached out to you. But you did not respond. I tried. 

Wisdom is usually portrayed in relation to other virtues or vices. This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post takes a look at one painting's vision of that pairing in a classical setting. Wisdom is poised...usually. Wisdom is calm...usually. Wisdom is strong and good and attractive. She is sure and eternal. But what happens if we change how wisdom looks? What happens if wisdom is frantic in her efforts to reach the people? What happens if wisdom has reached the point of despair because the people just won't listen. Just. Won't. Listen.

In Edvard Munch's iconic work "The Scream" the air has turned to blood and the faces of his friends  became a garish yellow-white. A huge endless scream coursed through nature. I tried. I reached out. I tried. How does our perception of these verses change if the Wisdom who looks more like Munch's work and less like a poised, powerful classical goddess? 
Edvard Munch. The Scream. 1893. National Gallery of Oslo.

This week, Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page considers Wisdom at the crossroads
For thoughts on Mark 8:27-38, click here.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Mark 7.24-37: Not Jesus' Ephphatha

One word. Jesus says one word: Ephphatha. He says it while the man in front of him waiting as he has been waiting. Jesus has touched the man's ears and tongue because the man is deaf and has a impediment to his speech. And with just one word - ephphatha - Jesus changes his life (Mark 7:31-37).

If the healing is the best part, the waiting is the hardest part. Whoever this man was, though, and however long he had been waiting, he was not without people who cared about him. "They" brought him to Jesus and begged that Jesus would lay his hand on the man. And Jesus did.

In his telling of the story Mark records two things that lend a sense of accuracy and detail to what could have been just another story of healing (not that there is ever really "just another healing story").

The first is that Jesus sighs - deeply - before healing the man. The same word is translated groaned in other places (Romans 8:23). Jesus looks up to heaven, groans...sighs deeply...before speaking the one word.

Ephphatha. Here Mark quotes Jesus' Aramaic word and then provides the Greek translation: Open or Be opened. This is not the only place where Mark has preserved Jesus' words in their original Aramaic (Abba in the garden; Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? from the cross). The presence of these words brings us closer to Jesus' voice. It seems so simple. Open.

One of the plants on my patio is a night-blooming cereus, shown at left. Cuttings from the plant were shared several years ago by one of my sister's co-workers. For several weeks there have been two buds on the plant. The top photo is one of the buds from this year. In their earlier stages the buds look like stalks of asparagus. They have continued to grow: the stem has gotten longer and the bud has gotten bigger.

Because the plant blooms only at night (and the bloom lives only one night), I am diligently checking every evening for signs of an impending bloom and every morning to make sure I didn't miss the blooming. But so far...nothing. The flower photos at left are photos of last year's single bloom. One evening this week I even found myself standing on the patio saying, "Open, already!" Just one more way that I know I'm not Jesus and that my words are not Jesus' ephphatha.

Where the man's ears and mouth responded immediately to Jesus' command, this night-blooming cereus is not remotely interested in mine. Where this bloom will last only a night, Jesus' opening of the man's ears and mouth will last a lifetime. No wonder the people paid no heed to Jesus' instructions not to tell anyone.

For a map of exactly where Jesus is wandering in the gospel lesson (Mark 7:24-37), see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post.

For thoughts on Proverbs 22:1-23, click here.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Song of Solomon 2.8-13: Seasons Change

David Bowie says he can't trace time. But the singer of the Song of Solomon can. The winter is past. The rain is over and gone. The flowers are blooming. Turtledoves are calling to one another. Figs are on the tree (clearly there are no squirrels in this world) and the vines are blooming. It is time to sing. (Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

This reading seems oddly placed by the RCL as it is read in August when Spring is just a memory. Where I live, temperatures have averaged over 90 degrees since June. The birds may be singing, but we don't hear them as easily over the air conditioning.

The singer may be implying that when she and her lover are together, it is almost like Eden - when creation was good and as God intended: when things did not fade or die. In other words, an eternal Spring. But I'm not sure I agree that Spring is the only embodiment of God's vision for creation. Perhaps it's because I am in the autumn of my own life, but I find the changing leaves and the pops of yellow and orange and red in the trees is its own kind of "good."

Like the singer, painters note the changes of season by things that are new or new again: landscape colors, the state of natural elements like trees, the presence or absence of flowers and birds.. Here, Georgia O'Keeffe moves from Autumn (left), then Winter and, finally (right), the winter is past and Sprig has come. Colors change. Branches are covered and then exposed and then covered again.
All Georgia O'Keeffe. (Left) Autumn Trees - The Maple. 1924. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.  Winter Tree III. 1953. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. (Right) Spring. c. 1922. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. Poughkeepsie, NY.
Sometimes those changes are wrought by the forces of nature: changing temperatures, blowing winds, unblinking rays of the sun. At other times, though, the changes come from within - which may be why the developers of the RCL pair this text with Mark 7's exploration of inside and outside. It seems that always when Spring comes, there are a few (literal) hangers-on. Just a handful of leaves that are brown and brittle but have refused to let go of the branches on which they grew. They have survived rain and wind, perhaps even snow and ice. Ultimately, though, those brown and brittle leaves mostly fall, pushed from their branches not by external forces but by small, new green leaves that cannot be held back. Those small leaves do what the forces of nature could not. Jesus' statement is true: what is within a person is more powerful that what is outside a person.


For "two turtledoves", see this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.
For additional thoughts on Mark 7:1-23, click here.