Monday, March 30, 2020

Crucifixion: Full or Empty

For additional Holy Week references see the Liturgical Calendar tab above or search by individual text.

Two different versions of the crucifixion. One filled with symbols and statements, people and references. One with only two unspecified figures in addition to Christ in the middle. As we approach Good Friday, we remember the individual episodes of the day, the characters - major and minor - that appear and disappear through the story. But we remember that this story, which touches all of humanity, is also the story of one individual's suffering. Which aspect of the story - which version of the crucifixion - speaks most to you this year?
Philip Evergood. The New Lazarus. 1927-1954. NY: Whitney Museum of Art. 
Evergood's large-scale work (58 1/4 × 93 3/8 × 2 5/8in) ties the story of Lazarus' resurrection to the story of Jesus' crucifixion. In the background, figures of ignorance cover their eyes and mouth and ears. The crucified Christ is off-center, placed left of center on the canvas. At the left a black figure hangs by hands tied to a tree near the bloody Lamb of God. At the right, soldiers stand while their fallen colleague is stretched out on the ground at the front of the canvas. Evergood wrote, "Christ, with all his generosity, his goodness, his love for people is crucified,  drained of his blood, and left for the vultures to devour."

Augustus Vincent Tack. Mystical Crucifixion. Not dated. Washington, DC: Phillips Collection.
Tack's version of the crucifixion, by contrast, has only two figures, flanking the centered image of Christ on the cross. The composition is symmetrically balanced, with a sun/moon and a single figure seated on an outcropping of rocks on each side of the composition. The figure on the left (as we look at the painting) has his back turned to the viewer. Naked, with hands tied behind his back, he looks up at the figure of Christ. The figure on the right is clothed in what looks somewhat like the garb of a Roman soldier. Holding a sphere (the earth?) in the right hand and a sword in the left, the figure is not looking at Christ. The landscape is desolate. With no other supporting symbols or interpretation, we are left to find our own meaning in this version of the crucifixion, perhaps separate from the actual events of Good Friday.

Which of the two speaks more to you in this season?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Exodus 12.1-14: Passing Over

For additional Holy Week resources, click on the Liturgical Calendar tab above.

The lamb's blood on the doorpost was a sign that the Lord should pass over a particular house as the firstborn of Egypt were killed. The blood was important, a visible sign of belonging to Yahweh.

What in the world does that look like? Cecil B. DeMille imagined a green mist that oozed under doors in order to accomplish the task at hand. Did you imagine it looking like either of these?

The left image shows a traditional angel holding a sickle. Also called a reaping hook, the sickle is an agricultural tool designed for harvesting, reaping, or cutting foliage. Is this a harvest in Egypt?

Or perhaps the right image is more what you imagine. A winged being but hardly solid. It is a red mist that creates a type of garment. In the angel's hand is a sword, a weapon with a long blade designed for slashing or thrusting.
(Left) Exodus 11.4. Scanned from "Coloured Picture Bible for Children." (Right) Arthur Hacker. And There was a great Cry in Egypt. 1897. Private Collection. 
A weapon? Or a tool? What should this figure be carrying?

And what of the aftermath? We are usually focused on the gathering of the Israelites and their leaving Egypt. American artist Charles Sprague Pearce instead focused on the grief of Egyptian parents in his painting (below). The parents here prepare to bury their child along with the clay figures that would be the child's companions in the afterlife. Many Victorian-era parents knew what it was to lose a child. This image, rather than celebrating the freedom of the Israelites, honored the grief of
Egyptian parents.

Charles Sprague Pearce. Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt, 1877. Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum.
How do we interpret this event? What are the feelings, and even contradictions, that we must hold in our hands as we consider this story?

And, for Christians, how do we hold this story as we read it on Maundy Thursday? See this week's Facebook post for thoughts on Passover and Maundy Thursday.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Palm Sunday: Putting It Together

For additional Palm Sunday links, click on the "Liturgical Calendar" tab above.

I suppose everything is seen through the coronavirus these days. As Christians turn their faces toward Holy Week the question is whether anything can be salvaged. The re-enactments of children waving palm branches. Gathering around tables to share a meal. Tenebrae services in gradually darkening rooms. Easter vigils that retell the story of salvation. Knocking on doors and striking new fire and processing into a sanctuary. How will that happen this year?

The art of Holy Week is often smooth and technically polished. Fresco artists of the 14th and 15th centuries carefully and smoothly mixed dry pigments with water and painted it on fresh plaster to illustrate the stories of scripture on the walls of churches and chapels. Baroque artists boldly brushed oil paint onto canvas, creating dramatic scenes of light and dark. Stained glass windows have carefully cut pieces of glass in lead channels, defining colors and values. People are defined. Branches are defined. The donkey is defined. Everything is in its designated place.

That's usually how our church services are as well. Children are rehearsed before being given a branch and scooted down the center aisle. Familiar hymns are rehearsed by the choir and soloists. Candles are lined up and snuffers are located. Everything needs to be, if not perfect, then as perfect as we can make it.

But not this year. This year we're trying to figure out how to craft a service of worship when worshipers are virtually together rather than sharing physical space. How to put together "what we've always done" with "we've never done this before." It's going to be a combination of new and old, familiar and strange, well-practiced and first-run.

Romare Bearden's collage "Palm Sunday Procession" may be a better image for us this year than all the perfect oil paintings and frescoes of the past. Bearden has used paint and a variety of papers. There are cut edges and torn edges. There are areas of flat color and parts that appear to be photocopies or interpretations of drawings sourced from mosaics or Early Christian wall paintings. The people in procession have varying skin tones, and there are adults as well as a child being carried. There are a lot of moving parts.
Romare Bearden. Palm Sunday Procession. 1967-1968. 56 x 44 in. 
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. Hanover, NH.
The composition has unity because of the artist. The skill and instinct of the artist brings together the pieces of paper no matter the source or the edge. It's the artist who makes this laundry list of components work as a single unit. It is the artist who helps us see the procession of Palm Sunday in a different way: not as a monolithic assemblage of perfectly constructed people in clothes of coordinating colors frozen in time, but as a collection of individual people made up of individual parts who have gathered to shout, "Hosanna! Save us!"

Bearden's original collages are no more than 14" x 18." These original collages were photographed and enlarged to six by eight feet or, as here, four by five feet. Those torn edges and purposefully mismatched papers were magnified four, five, or six times their original size in an effort to give the subjects a monumentality they did not have in their original size.

That may be a message to us as well. At that scale we again see how the hand and eye of the artist have combined the seemingly potluck ingredients into a whole. This week, put it all together. Print it large, embracing the torn edges and the variety of colors and sources. Trust the artist to make it work.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

In the Time of Virus: Isolation

For thoughts on Ezekiel 37:1-14, click here or here.
For thoughts on John 11:1-45, click here.

It's a strange time. The proof was in worship this morning when worshipers picked up their own orders of service from a stack and left their offerings in the plate by the door on their way out. When the peace of Christ was passed with a wave of a hand. When the Communion table was empty. When worshipers were encouraged to space themselves on the pews with an appropriate distance between them and the next person.

There have been moments where the world has felt very much like an Edward Hopper painting. Hopper, an American realist painter, is known for placing a single figure in a vacant setting. His work seems to isolate people - sometimes in the country, other times in the city. Men, women, even dogs are alone...or alone together. Detachment is available to anyone in a Hopper painting.

One of the things I appreciate about Hopper is that while he places his figures in isolation (sometimes even when there is more than one person in the painting), he does not seem to indicate what these people are feeling, nor does he dictate what the viewer should feel when looking at the paintings.

Hopper's paintings feel remarkably like today's social distancing. We are separated from one another. That much is obvious. But what are we feeling? Anxiety? Loneliness? Peace? Is this a time to think and process who we are and what life should be about?

While some of us may have chosen to give up something as a Lenten discipline, all of us have been virus-required to give up a number of things. We can live these more socially-austere days in many ways. May Sarton wrote, Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self. Will our current virus-mandated isolation be a time of poverty or richness? A time of loneliness or solitude? Perhaps answering that question would be a good use of our imposed isolation. 

Edward Hopper. (Top) Office in a Small City. 1953. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Bottom) Intermission. 1963. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 

Sunday, March 8, 2020

John 9.1-41: Spit and Mud

It may come as no surprise that there are few (perhaps none...I've never seen one) paintings that show Jesus spitting to make mud (John 9:1-41). It's hard to depict, and it's actually a little yucky. So images of the healing of the man born blind more often show Jesus pointing toward the pool of Siloam or the man jumping about after being cured. Those are definitely the more artistic choice.

And yet there's something really earthy about Jesus using his spit to make mud that heals. As children, my siblings and I came to refer to spit as the "universal solvent." Need to get a scuff off your church shoes? Spit will do that. Mom needs to get that smudge off your face? Spit. Need to see what that cool rock looks like when it isn't dusty? Yep...spit. Universal solvent.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus uses his saliva to make mud which he places on the blind man's eyes. Why, exactly, Jesus used this method is unknown. Perhaps because this event happened on the Sabbath, Jesus was re-interpreting the rule against working on the Sabbath (as making clay was "work" and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath). Or maybe Jesus was reminding us that, as we said on Ash Wednesday, we are made from dust and to dust we shall return. Or maybe it's that spit was/is just so very human.
Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Walking Figures. 1985. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AL.
Alabama artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth used mud as paint. Because of the volume of paintings that he created, he wouldn't have used spit for all of them, but he was known to make a little mud to smear across a canvas with his finger in the way that another artist would use a brush. Sudduth's most characteristic mud was what he called "sweet mud." The mud was bound with soft drinks or sugar. Sudduth once claimed he could get more than thirty colors from the dirt and clay around him. Mud can do remarkable things.

Jesus was able to do extraordinary things with ordinary materials...even spit and mud. Jesus' action also stands as a stark contrast to those who spit on Jesus while he was being held after his arrest. In Matthew's gospel, the guards spit on Jesus and some slapped him and taunted him saying, "Prophesy to us..who is it who struck you?" (Matthew 26:67) Which might lead us to believe that Jesus was blindfolded or in some other way unable to see who it was that was doing the spitting and slapping. You have to wonder if he thought of the day when he brought together the elements of spit and blindness with very different results. How like Jesus to use the commonest of things as instruments to create and uplift rather than as instruments of destruction and harm.

For additional thoughts on I Samuel 16 and John 9, click here.
For additional thoughts on I Samuel 16, click here.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Exodus 17 and John 4: Looking for a Big Nose

Everyone needs drinking water. Whether you are wandering through the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-7) or through the Samaritan countryside (John 4:5-42), you are going to need water. So you are always looking for a well or a river or some other way to stay hydrated. Clean, drinkable water means survival. No survival.

In Rome, Italy, you won't need to look hard for clean, drinkable water. Around Rome are more than 2,500 public drinking fountains called nasoni (literally "big noses"). The fountains were first placed in the early 1870s. The nasoni are made of cast iron and deliver fresh, cold water that travels through 70 miles of channels from the Peschiera reservoir to and through the city of Rome. The water is free for everyone - fill your water bottle or drink from the fountain (you can plug the spout and the water will come out a small hole in the top like a drinking fountain). The column-shaped fountain like you see here is a mass-produced design from the 1930s. There were originally a number of sculptural spouts, including the she-wolf who represents Rome's beginnings, though many of those are no longer extant.

In the two texts for Lent 3A, one story tells of finding no water, the other tells of finding not only drinking water but eternal water. The nasoni would have solved part of the water issues facing the people of Exodus and John. There would have been no need to strike a rock. No need to pull up a bucket from a well. There's still only one source for that living water, though.

If you are headed to Rome, try the apps I Nasoni di Roma (Apple Store) or Fountains in Italy (Google Play) for a guide to nasoni locations.

For additional thoughts on Exodus 17, click here.
For additional thoughts on John 4, click here.