Sunday, May 27, 2018

Mark 2.23-3.6: Who's Watching Jesus?

The image is descriptive. As scripture says, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field. They picked some grain. But it was the sabbath, and picking grain, according to the Pharisees, was work. Forbidden on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6, Proper 4 (9), Pentecost 2B).

But Smetham's work shows no Pharisees. Instead a woman and a child look across the field from the left side of the picture. The woman points at Jesus and the disciples. But no Pharisees.
James Smetham. Lord of the Sabbath. 1681. Etching on Paper.  London: Tate Museum.
What is she saying to the child? Why is she pointing toward Jesus? Is he an example of how she wants the child to live and what she wants the child to do? Or is Jesus being highlighted as a warning and an example of what not to do? 

And what about the birds? Are they doves flying in to symbolize peace? Bringing a meaning beyond the physical setting? Or are they birds flying in to feast on ripening grain as birds do? Are they doing naturally what will get Jesus and the disciples in trouble? Eating grain...even on Sunday?

How do you read this version of the gospel text?

On Facebook this week, a vintage pop culture image meets I Samuel 3. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Isaiah 6.1-8: Scale

Isaiah's call story (Isaiah 6:1-8, Trinity B) is full of imagery: seraphim, thrones, burning coals. Artists like Mark Chagall have depicted the call in many ways. The call forms the center portion of Chagall's portrait of the prophet. The seraphim touches the burning coal to Isaiah's lips.
Marc Chagall. The Prophet Isaiah. 1968. Musee Marc Chagall, Nice, France.
Surely that is a dramatic moment, but the artist has put us in a position outside the action. We are spectators watching what happens at a distance. The seraphim is roughly human sized, and the collection of background figures remove the sense of reality. The text, however, gives us a very definite scale of the action. And it isn't this.

The text tells us that the Lord is sitting on a throne and the royal robe is so immense that the hem...just the hem...fills the Temple. The Temple is filled by the hem of the robe. There is no sense of that scale in Chagall's work. which has Isaiah as the largest figure in the composition. Everything is scaled to human proportions.

The difference is important because the scale indicated by the text puts human beings directly in front of the vastness and power of God. And in the face of the hugeness of God, humans understand that they are small. Consider the difference between watching a movie at a movie theater and watching it on a computer. The shipwreck, the space travel, the desert...all of them are more impressive, more immersive, on a theater screen than on a laptop. The difference is the scale of the scene in relation to human beings.

To give you a sense of what a difference scale makes, compare the viewpoint of Chagall's Isaiah with the painting below. The story it illustrates also involves the hem of a garment hem and a touch. It is the artist's point of view and the scale of the painting compared to the viewer that makes us feel small, low, and vulnerable. That helps us understand just how low and vulnerable the woman who sought healing was willing to make herself.
Daniel Cariola. Encounter. 2016. Encounter Chapel, Magdala (Migdal), Israel.
The photo below offers a glimpse of scale from the natural world. Here the Aurora Borealis (Nothern Lights) dance above the Lofoten Islands in Norway. The lights of the town are bright (and probably a little brighter here than they would normally be in order to have a long exposure for the sky), but next to the vastness of the aurora...
Alex Conu. Northern Lights Above Lofoten. 2015. Astronomy Picture of the Day, June 26, 2016.

For additional thoughts on scale, see this week's Facebook post. 
For thoughts on Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), click here.
For Facebook thoughts on the call of Isaiah, click here.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ezekiel 37.1-14: Bones and Sinews Waiting for Breath

Ezekiel 37 is a visually tempting passage. Just ask J.R.R. Tolkien (and Peter Jackson), who invented his own resurrected army of dead bones in Return of the King. Ezekiel also knows as he stands looking at an expanse of dry bones spread across the floor of  a valley. The idea that life can come from what is clearly lifeless is universally appealing.

Italian painter (and architect and inventor and civil engineer and sculptor and ninja turtle and...) Leonardo da Vinci captured the beauty and function of human bones and sinews in his many anatomy drawings. The importance of the figure in Renaissance art made an understanding of human anatomy a necessity for any artist. Leon Battista Alberti, a 15th-century art theorist, instructed artists that they should understand and paint the human figure as it is in nature: a skeleton and musculature that is covered with skin. For Alberti, drawing an external appearance was not enough. Artists needed to understand how the human body worked - bone to bone with connecting muscles.

Leonardo began his anatomy studies in service to his art, but the subject became a separate interest for him. Over several decades in Milan, Florence, and Pavia, he himself dissected more than two dozen corpses. He developed a process of illustration that represented the parts of the body in transparent layers so that the student could understand not just the look of various bones, muscles, and organs, but their function as part of the whole system of the body. Leonardo never published his anatomical drawings.
Leonardo da Vinci. (Left) Skeleton of the trunk and shoulder. Pen and brown ink with wash modeling over traces of black chalk. Royal Library, London, 19012R. (Right) The muscles of the right shoulder. Pen and brown ink with wash modeling over traces of black chalk. Royal Library, London, 19003V.
But no matter how beautiful, how useful, how instructive Leonardo's drawings are (and they are all three of those things), they can't match the amazing moment when God breathed the breath of life into the bones on that valley floor. Bare bones. Sinews on bones. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but what a moment when God breathes on us the breath of life!

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere or here.
For additional thoughts on Ezekiel and the valley of bones, click here.
For a variety of places to see vast collections of bones, visit the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

John 17.6-19: Language and Rhythm

Jesus is praying for the disciples in John 17:6-19 (Easter 7B). In this passage, yours and mine and I and you and they weave together, each one occasionally popping up like dolphins in an ocean pod surface in turn as they move through the water.

Or like the over-and-under of a Celtic knot. Now mine. Now yours. Now them. Now me. Now I. Now you. Now they. Jesus' words flow in sentences that move over and under and back around again as he prays for the disciples and to God.
Be sure to read the text out loud and hear the rhythm of it.

John 17:6-19
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.
Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.
All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

For thoughts on the call of Matthias, click here.