Monday, April 27, 2020

Acts 7.55-60: Glass Houses

If you are an architect, the most famous one is probably Philip Johnson's. But Ludwig Mies van der Rohe did one, too. If you saw the film The Lake House (2006) you saw one that was designed and built for the movie in a matter of weeks and then disassembled at the conclusion of filming. There was one for sale, designed by a student of  Mies. That's right, you could have been one of those people who lives in a glass house.
Mies van der Rohe. Farnsworth House (view toward the Fox River). 1951. Plano, IL
And if you were one of those people, you'd know the truth that people have known since Chaucer first wrote it: Who that hath an hed of verre, Fro cast of stones war hym in the werre! If  your Chaucerian English needs an assist: The man who has a head of glass, should beware of  throwing stones, when he goes to war.  Or, as the proverb has come to us: People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

The point, generally, is that you shouldn't criticize others for particular faults and/or weaknesses when you have the same faults or weaknesses. That seems to share some commonality with Jesus' comment when he comes across a woman who is about to be stoned after being charged with adultery (John 8:1-11): Whoever is without sin throw the first stone.

Of course Jesus is long gone when Stephen faces the stones in the hands of other people. I wonder if he had heard the story of Jesus and the woman. As his life is ending he prays that God will not hold this sin against those with rocks in their hands.

I also wonder what happened when Saul - by then Paul - heard the story about Jesus and the woman. I wonder if he thought of that day when he watched over the coats of the people who pummeled Stephen with rocks until he died. On the day, of course, he would have claimed that the killing of Stephen was not a sin.  But later, I wonder how he felt Jesus' words to the crowd that was ready and willing to stone that woman.

By then Paul understood that he was one of those people who lived in a glass house and had no business picking up a pebble, much less a rock. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. (I Timothy 1:15)

These days life might feel a lot like living in a glass house. We can see the outside, but we are removed from it. Life is happening out there, and we can see it, but we can't connect with it right now. It's worth remembering that everyone else is living in a glass house, too. So maybe we should keep our hands off the stones.

Is there a family resemblance? See thoughts about John 14:9 on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Shepherd is a Lamb is a Gate is a...Human?

Search for thoughts on other scriptures by using the Hebrew Scripture and Christian Scripture indexes. The tabs are in the area above the date of this post.

Three of the readings designated for Easter 4A (Psalm 23, I Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10) refer to shepherds and/or sheep. The Lord is our shepherd. Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus is also the gate through which the sheep enter. Jesus is also the lamb, sacrificed for all of us sheep who have gone astray. It's a tangled skein of yarn.

Recent art conservation added an interesting twist to Christian scripture as an intersection of sheep and humans. The Ghent Altarpiece was created by brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck around 1432. The altarpiece is made up of  twelve panels that can fold in and expand in several combinations to tell several different stories.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. 1432. St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.
The heart of the altarpiece is a panel called "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" (above). At the center of the panel, the Lamb of God stands on an altar, a side wound bleeding into into a chalice. Around the lamb are saints and martyrs. Beneath (in front of) the altar is a fountain inscribed with Revelation 22:1, a reference to the river of the water of life. The panel, and the altarpiece as a whole, are rich in symbols and narrative.

The altarpiece is sometimes identified as the most stolen work of art in the world. It's hard to quantify that, but both individual panels and the altarpiece as a whole have been stolen multiple times. It was most famously stolen - and recovered - in the 2014 film The Monuments Men

In 2012, the latest round of restoration began on the altarpiece. In this restoration, old varnish was removed along with overpaintings that have been done almost since the altarpiece was first displayed. The final phase of the work was revealed several months ago. One of the most surprising finds was the original state of the face of the lamb. The lamb owed it appearance before restoration to overpainting done probably in the 16th century. When that overpainting was removed, the lamb looked significantly more human. Eyes that had appeared more on the side of the lamb's head were discovered to face fully to the front. One of the Van Eyck brothers had outlined the lamb's eyes and more fully defined the face. With the removal of the 16th-century paint, the lamb gazes much more forcefully at the viewer, and the viewer is more fully confronts the eyes of God's sacrificial lamb. 
Detail. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
Reactions and responses to the discovery have been mixed. Words like "cartoonish" and "disturbing" have been used, and one writer characterized the Lamb of God as an "alien creature." Like it or not, this much more humanoid creature seems to be the vision of the 15th-century artists who created it. Perhaps rather than asking whether we like it, we should be asking what it means. What does it mean that the lamb is looking directly at us as it bleeds into a chalice? What does it mean to have a more human face on the Lamb of God? What was happening in the time and place of the creation of this piece that this was the Lamb of God?

The Lord is our shepherd - a good shepherd. But our Lord was also the sheep. And human. Like us. For us.

For further reading about the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, see:

For another look at a human/animal portrait mix, see this "recycled" Art&Faith Matters Facebook post. The scripture isn't the same, but the images are in the same vein. 

Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19: Lift Up the Cup

I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.  (Psalm 116:13) Both Jewish and Christian traditions have cups that are regularly lifted up when the Lord's name is called.

(Left) Bezalel Workshops. Kiddush Cup. 1908-1929. NY: Jewish Museum. 
(Right) The Ardagh Chalice. 8th century CE. National Museum of Ireland.
The word 'kiddush' means holiness or to make something holy, to sanctify it. The prayer 'kiddush' is a blessing recited over a cup of wine or juice before the blessing over the bread at the beginning of Shabbat. Portions of Genesis 1 are read, remembering how God finished the work of creation and sanctified the seventh day as a day of rest. After the blessing is recited the cup is passed around so that all can take a sip.

In Christian practice, a chalice or cup of some kind is used as part of the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Remembering Jesus' last supper with his disciples, the chalice is often lifted up as words are said and the people are invited to the table. In some congregations worshipers come forward and share a common cup; in others, congregations use individual cups.

If you remember the ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you remember that Indy's challenge was to choose the "real" Grail - understood as the cup that Jesus used at that last supper -  from the myriad of cups and plates arrayed around him. The choices included cups of silver and gold that shone in the firelight. Some were encrusted with jewels that added richness and sparkle. Kiddush cups are often heirlooms, passed down through families. Many kiddush cups are silver, engraved, special, in order to suitably honor the occasion for which the cups are used. However, any cup can be used.

In both traditions, there are options to use cups that have been made more precious through time and materials. But neither tradition requires a cup that is expensive or bejeweled or a prize to be attained. It is, after all, already precious, if it reminds us we lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

John 20.19-31: Proof

How do you know the current state of things? You ask for proof, right? The deposit has been made? Let me just check that. You've finished your homework? Let me take a look. It's cold enough for a sweater? I'll just step outside and see for myself. Thomas was no different. In fact, he might be excused for his desire for proof. You say Jesus, who died, came back to life and walked through a wall to get to the room where you were? Well, I'd like to see that for myself. (John 20:19-31) Sometimes you need to see for yourself how things are at the moment before you can move ahead.

Artists need that too, especially printmakers. While painters can step back from an easel and assess a painting in process, printmakers can't do that. The printmaker is developing the composition on some kind of plate (a slab of wood, a piece of linoleum, a metal plate). Once the plate is manipulated according to the artist's plan, ink is applied to the plate and the inked plate is pressed to paper. The paper is lifted from the plate to reveal a mirror image of the plate. So printmakers may pull a print while still in the development process to see the current state of the print and what it will look like on paper.

All photos from the Kirkland's Museum's online exhibit Process and Print, part of the museum's March 2020 Month of Printmaking. 
Those prints are called working proofs. They help a printmaker see the picture as it will be. It allows the printmaker to adjust, change things, modify elements and move ahead with the best possible information Perhaps this episode in John's gospel is Thomas' working proof. It's a chance to see in reality something that he has been working on in mirror image. It's a chance to move ahead having seen the end result.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Easter Day Meal

For additional thoughts on Easter, click on the Liturgical Calendar tab above as well as individual texts in the scripture indices.

It was on the night of Easter day that Jesus surprised two travelers returning to Emmaus from Jerusalem (Luke 24:13-35). But in the Diego Velazquez painting shown here, that story is (literally) in the background. At the left of the composition, visible on the other side of a window or pass-through, Jesus sits at table with two people (one is visibly present only through a gesturing hand), bread in his hand and a halo behind his head. Presumably the visible halo signals that Jesus has been made known to his companions.

But that really is just background.
Diego Velazquez. Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus. 1617-1618. Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland.
The main subject is the Moorish kitchen worker. Even as the Emmaus pilgrims are finding their world turned upside down, the worker in the kitchen continues to work. There is no change for that worker. Tintoretto's version of the Last Supper at San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, shows servants preparing the meal and even doing the dishes in the room where all manner of supernatural things are happening. Someone had to make the meals, serve them, and clean up afterward.

Will the servant in Velazquez' painting learn what the men learned at the table? Will the servant be able to partake of the resurrection promised through Jesus Christ? It all depends on what Jesus' traveling companions do with the experience they had when bread was broken. How and with whom will they share the risen Christ?

Holy Saturday: Waiting

What do the disciples do on Saturday? After the emotional events of Friday and with the restrictions of the Sabbath, there isn't much for them to do but hunker down and home and wait. But how did they wait? With resignation? In fear? What did they do in that time? Did they tell stories of their time with Jesus? Remember the good old days? Sit in silence after the unspeakable horror of crucifixion?

Eugene Burnand has chosen Holy Saturday as the subject of a painting. Here the disciples are gathered around a single table. They sit or stand, eyes staring vacantly or looking expectantly at one another. One disciples has his head in his hands.
Eugene Burnand. Holy Saturday. 1907-1908. Musee des Beaux Arts, La Chaux de Finds, France. 

Is it despair? Is it sadness? Is it sorrow or anguish? Regret? Disibelief? Are they waiting for something or are they just at loose ends? How would you characterize their waiting? How will you wait on this Holy Saturday...and all the others that follow?

Jesus will find the disciples gathered in a locked room, sitting and waiting in fear on the first night of the week that began Easter morning. The Holy Spirit will find the disciples together in a room on the day of Pentecost, waiting in the city as Jesus had instructed them (Luke 24:49). Were the disciples better at waiting than we are? Or did they just not record their impatience, their despair, their doubts?