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.