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.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

John 6.56-69: They No Longer Went About with Him

This teaching is difficult. So claim some of Jesus' followers in John 6:56-69. Do they mean difficult as in hard to understand? Or difficult as in it steps on my toes so I don't want to follow it? Or just exactly what?

Whatever it was, it was enough that it made people stop following Jesus. But the disciples remained true. Where else would we go? they asked Jesus. You have the words of eternal life. And the disciples continued following Jesus. Following on the road to eternal life.
American broadside printed by G.S. Peters in Harrisburg, PA. 1830s-1840s. 
But clearly there was another road they could have chosen: a road that led not to eternal life but to eternal damnation. And because those who stopped following (and their fiery, monstrous, deadly fate) are often perceived as a more interesting subject than those who stay the course, there is a clear artistic tradition growing from the choice. There are also overtones here of Matthew 7:14, where Jesus describes gates that are wide and ways that are broad. Many are on those ways, but those ways do not lead to eternal life. The way to eternal life is narrow and, at least in the American broadside here, rocky. 
Georgin, Francois. Three Roads to Eternity. 1825. Cornell University: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography
As Matthew's gospel indicates, the way away from God is broad and many are on that path. The variations rare similar, but each has not two but three paths. The non-scriptural path is the middle one, which looks like it is going to the new Jerusalem and, indeed, passes in view of the city, but then leads to damnation. The top version has the inscriptions and morals in English, while the center example is in French and the example at the bottomin German. 
G. S. Peters (Printer/Publisher). Die Wege zum ewigen Leben oder dem Ewigen Verderben
Das Neue Jerusalem [The Paths to Eternal Life or Eternal Damnation. The New Jerusalem], 
n.d. Broadside. Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Collection, Philadelphia, PA
As with many images that contrast heaven and hell, the artist seems to revel in the sufferings of those who follow the parade into hell. But when you read Jesus' words to the disciples what tone do you hear? Does Jesus seem to share the interest of the artists in ogling those who have chosen that broad way and no longer go about with him?

For thoughts on Solomon's temple prayer (I Kings 8), click here.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

John 6.51-58: Bread...Again

Have you ever noticed how many times scripture talks about bread? Art&Faith Matters has talked about it here and here and here and here. And just for good measure, there is manna here. There is lots of bread in scripture, and in John 6:51-58 a connecting line is drawn between bread and manna:  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate...
Master of the Gathering of the Manna. Gathering of the Manna from the Ashburnam Pentateuch
The picture above is exactly what it describes (and the designation/naming of the artist is drawn from this work). What is interesting, I think, is the manner in which people are gathering the manna. Some are picking up the wafer-shaped manna from the ground. Men, women, and children are all engaged in the task. Babies are held in their mother's arms, and people embrace as the miracle occurs. This is clearly a celebration. As it should be. For the coming decades the people will be fed daily with manna and quail.

But there are others who are not waiting for the manna to fall. They have baskets raised in order to collect the manna as soon as possible. Compositionally, it works. The figure at the top center is positioned directly beneath the hole in the sky from which the manna falls. A dark funnel-shaped shadow leads directly to the opening of the vessel being held aloft. The dark shadow also highlights the light-colored manna as it falls. Others in the crowd echo his practice and position.

Jesus identified himself as the living bread that came down from heaven. How do we receive that bread? Do we wait for the bread to fall to the ground before we pick it up? Do we think, "Bread (or manna)...again"? Or do we reach above our heads in order to snag that bread out of mid-air so that we can have it at the earliest possible moment? There's a difference.

For thoughts on Solomon's request for wisdom, click here.
For one tradition's use of bread, see Food&Faith Matters here.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

2 Samuel 18: A Recycled Story.

Absalom's fate is foreshadowed in I Samuel 18:8. The fighting is taking place in the forest of Ephraim. The narrator comments that the forest claimed more victims than the fighting. Sure enough, Absalom's hair is caught in the branches of a tree, allowing Joab and his soldiers to overtake him.

Like many biblical stories (including this one), Absalom has been appropriated for circumstances far beyond David's life in Israel. The embroidery below sets Absalom, Joab and David in pre-Revolutionary America.
Faith Robinson Trumbull (attrib.). The Hanging of Absalom. c. 1770. Silk and metal thread on black satin. 
New London, CT: Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
Rather than being the caring-then-distraught father, David (symbolizing King George III) is here the unseeing king, sitting in his palace playing his harp with no regard for what the people outside the palace (in the colonies) are suffering. Absalom is in the middle of the composition, indeed caught by his hair, his feet off the ground. Joab, David's commander in the scripture story, is wearing the uniform of a British redcoat. Absalom is the patriot, rebelling against an unfeeling monarch. 

The piece is believed to have been created soon after the Boston Massacre. On March 5, 1770, a British soldier was attacked by a mob in Boston. What started as a street altercation ended with the death of five American colonists at the hands of British soldiers. The creator of the piece - or at least the one to whom it is attributed is Faith Robinson Trumbull, wife of Jonathan Trumbull (Colonial Governor of CT) and mother of artist John Trumbull. 
The images of Absalom hanging from a tree can be disturbing, especially in light of the racial terrorist practice of lynching. This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook: a link to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.