Sunday, May 24, 2020

Trinity: Welcome Home

Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. If you are from a Christian tradition that embraces the Apostles' Creed, you have probably said those words. We know them to be true. the disciples watched Jesus move farther and farther away from them as he ascended. And where Jesus went was to heaven. Have you ever wondered what that looked like?

When artists consider the Trinity, it's often like this painting by Masaccio. Jesus is on the cross, his arms outstretched. The first person of the Trinity stands behind Jesus' head. A dove representing the Holy Spirit hovers between the two. This is the Trinity at the moment of Jesus' death. But what about after the Ascension? What happened when Jesus returned to heaven?
Pieter de Grebber. God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand. 1645. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.
Pieter de Grebber, a 17th-century Dutch painter, imagined that scene of "What happened next?" In this scene, Jesus kneels before the first person of the Trinity, who is seated on a throne. The symbol for the Holy Spirit, a dove here as in Masaccio's painting, hovers nearby. The enthroned God stretches out a hand inviting Jesus to take his place to the right of the throne.

Is this how you picture this part of the story? Have you imagined this scene at all? In the version here, Jesus appears to be still wearing the fabric wrapped around his hips that we see in many versions of the Crucifixion/Resurrection. Jesus is kneeling, with hands raised so we see the wounds in his hands. There is red fabric - some kind of cloak, perhaps - behind Jesus.

It occurs to me that this doesn't really look like a long-lost son coming home. It absolutely doesn't look like a triumphant king returning home after a win. It looks like someone who didn't count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8).

Previous posts for Trinity Sunday can be accessed through the scripture index tabs under the blog title.

One of the earliest (maybe THE earliest?) depiction of the Trinity. This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Luke and Acts: Something Promised This Way Comes

In the liturgical calendar, May 31, 2020 is both the celebration of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) and the day marking the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-57). It's an interesting mix. Both are important in their own right, but it's an interesting idea to consider them together. What do these days have to say to one another?

One episode is at the beginning of Jesus' story; the other is at the end. Jesus is present in both stories in a spiritual sense but not walking the earth in either story. Mary, the mother of Jesus may be present in both stories. Though Acts doesn't mention her presence, artists often depict Mary in the midst of  the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is also physically present at Pentecost and was also active in the early stories in Luke's gospel.

What both episodes recognize is a promise fulfilled. At the Visitation, Elizabeth rejoices that that "the mother of my Lord" comes to her. Elizabeth recognizes that the promise of the Messiah has come. She also recognizes Mary's faithfulness in believing the promise: And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. Pentecost is the fulfillment of the promised Spirit.
Jyoti Sahi. The Pentecost.1983.
Jyoti Sahi draws the stories together in the painting above. In the middle of the flame-like colors of Pentecost and under a descending dove is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary appears to be seated. Where you would expect to see her midsection clothed in white, however, is a mandorla. Mandorla is the Italian word for almond, which describes that seed-like shape. The shape is also called a vesica piscis. In images of the Visitation, Mary's belly is often defined by a shape that is at least reminiscent of the mandorla. Within that shape is Jesus (and in the example linked here, check John's reaction). The mandorla in the painting reminds us that Mary is the mother of Jesus the Christ. Because it is an image of Pentecost, we remember that the church is called to be the body of Christ in the world. 

Pentecost is the seed of the church. The promised power has come. It's not the first of God's promises that have been fulfilled. One more time, the fulfilled promise of God means life and growth. We should all be leaping for joy.  

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Acts 1.6-14: Generating Power

So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you..." (Acts 1:6-8). You could make a case that 1936 was a year that America received power (or was at least intrigued with power). 

Oh, not power like the Holy Spirit gives, but electric power. Hoover Dam, Fort Peck Dam, and Inwood Power Station were all of interest to artists in 1936. The Union Pacific Railroad Boulder City Branch railroad carried workers and materials from Boulder City to the dam's construction site. Margaret Bourke-White's photograph of the Fort Peck Dam brought to industrial sites the same monumentality as photographs of ancient cities or Gothic cathedrals. Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas created a portrait of a new hydroelectric power plant on the banks of the Harlem River. How almost unimaginable the potential for power was during the years of industrialization and mechinization. 

How much power could be generated with something as common as water. Of course that common water had to be dammed up and carefully monitored and restrained in order to have it make power. 
Margaret Bourke-White. Fort Peck Dam. 1936. Aaron Douglas. Inwood Power Plant, 1936. 
Hoover Dam brochure by Union Pacific Railroad. 1931.
Is that like the power given by the Holy Spirit? Would you say that the Holy Spirit gives us power or gives us resources that, if managed, can give us great power? Or, conversely, if ignored or ill-managed can remain dormant?

The promise was that the disciples would receive power. How the power was made and what the disciples would do with it....well, at the point of our Acts text, that story was yet to be told. Maybe it is still yet to be fully told.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

John 14.15-21: Vertical and Horizontal

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:19) And what were those commandments? Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Or as a friend once paraphrased it, "Love for your neighbor what you love for yourself." The text pushes and pulls both vertically and horizontally. Love of God is often depicted on a vertical axis, while love of neighbor is more horizontal. There is tension in the need to respond to each axis (to use a math term...which I don't often do), but there is also balance in responding to both.

Though he might relate the work more to spirituality than theology, Piet Mondrian's art evolved into an exploration of those same concerns of balance and tension combining to create harmony. Mondrian's abstract art has been poached widely for decorative purposes. Everything from runway fashion to the Partridge Family Bus bears the familiar black, white, yellow, red, and blue grid.
Piet Mondrian.. Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow. 1937-1942. NY: Museum of Modern Art. 
That grid is the end result of the artist's exploration. His early work is filled with recognizable objects, but gradually Mondrian became less interested in reproducing reality and more interested in theoretical relationships like opposites and pure color. Mondrian isn't interested in implying depth or space on the canvas by putting objects in front of  one another. Instead, he pares his paints and compositional elements down to a minimum.

What he is left with is the grid-like pattern of dark lines (black and slightly varying shades of dark gray) in opposition to spaces of light color (varying shades of white) along with red, blue, and yellow. The colors he chooses are primary colors. From those three colors all other colors can be mixed: red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green, red and blue make purple. White and black allow for mixing tints and tones of all those colors.

Mondrian's late work is painting pared down, yet containing all things. Sort of like Jesus' commandments. When a lawyer tried to trap Jesus about the greatest commandment, Jesus' answer was, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ All the law and the prophets...they hang on these two commandments. And all the colors can be made from three primaries.

Vertical and horizontal. Balanced but asymmetrical. Roots from which other things can grow. Jesus' commandments. If we only keep them.