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.

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