Sunday, March 28, 2021

I John 1.1 - 2.2: God is Light

This is the message that we have heard...and proclaim to you: God is light. (I John 1:5) God is light. It's a metaphor used throughout scripture. Probably the most common application of the metaphor is in comparison to no-light or darkness. But it's important to remember what light is. 

Light is a spectrum. White light isn't white. It's the presence of the entire spectrum -- all colors of light. Darkness is the absence of all colors of light. [Paint and pigments are directly the opposite: white is the absence of all pigment; dark/black is the presence of all colored pigments.]

Peter Erskine uses sunlight as his artistic medium, asserting that all of life is solar-powered. Erskine uses this element in quite high tech ways. He uses laser-cut prisms and mirrors, connecting them to solar-tracking technologies and photo voltaic cells. The sun is the subject matter, the medium, and the power source of Erskine's art. 

Peter Erskine. Sun Painting. 2009. Lafayette Library, Lafayette, California.
Erskine's installation in the Lafayette County Library is a plexiglas skylight/shaft that is five feet square and ten feet high. Lined with laser-cut prisms and mirrors, the shaft creates an everchanging display of rainbow fragments. In just minutes, the turning of the earth and the changing clouds create completely new arrangements of colors. 

The sun. A constant presence that nevertheless presents ever-changing views. The source of light on earth. All the colors of the spectrum. God is light. 

For more images from the Lafayette Library's Sun Painting installation, click here

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Easter: Of Butterflies and Moths

 We know butterflies as a symbol of resurrection. Caterpillars enter the hardened chrysalis, and turn into "caterpillar soup" before emerging as butterflies. Life. Death. Resurrection. 

Odilon Redon created multiple paintings of multiple butterflies. The creatures are against semi-natural backgrounds. Cloud-like smears of color are located toward the top of the MOMA image (top left). Paint suggesting rocks and landscapes are toward the bottom of the image. Cool colors dominate the image. The other painting is dominated by warm colors. 

In both images winged creatures seek to soar upward, some cartwheeling through the sky. 

Are they all butterflies? Are some of them moths? Does it make a difference for our celebration of resurrection on Easter?

Butterflies aren't mentioned in the Bible. We bring the meaning of resurrection to them, but that is not an image from scripture.

Moths are mentioned in scripture, though not in the most positive light. Isaiah 50:9, Hosea 5:12, and Job 4:19 all mention moths as things that eat or consume. Think about what can happen to a sweater when moths get hold of it. Actually it's the larval stage of the moth that causes all the destruction. The insects lay eggs on (preferably) wool cloth. When the eggs hatch, the larval moths feed on the wool. It isn't really the adult moths that are harmful for our stored winter garments. 

And yet, the moth passes through the same three stages that a butterfly does: larval, cocoon, moth. Life, death, resurrection. Why don't we think of the moth in the same way that we do the butterfly? 

Are they parallel symbols? Can we embrace the moth this Easter as well? Or should we let butterflies be butterflies and moths be moths. What counts for resurrection symbols? 

(Top left) Odilon Redon. Butterflies. c. 1910. NY: Museum of Modern Art. (Bottom left) Odilon Redon. Evocation of Butterflies. c. 1910-1012. Detroit Institute of Art. 

How do you distinguish moths from butterflies? Click here.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion: Studies by Francis Bacon

Who do we usually see at the foot of Jesus' cross? The Beloved Disciple. Mary, Jesus' mother. Other women who had followed and supported Jesus. Sometimes the Roman centurion who confessed this Jesus as the son of God. These figures are sometimes stoic, sometimes emotional. Sometimes the look at Jesus, other times they weep. Sometimes their hands look like they are folded in prayer, sometimes they look like they are clenched in fists. Do they ever look like this? Or do the figures in more realistic works look like they feel like this? 
Francis Bacon. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. 1944. London: Tate Gallery. 

Irish-born painter Francis Bacon created Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. The work was first exhibited in April 1945. World War II engulfed the globe, but the world was just beginning to see the horrors of Nazi concentration camps through footage released. Experiences of horror and revulsion are readily present in the world. 

The artist said the figures were inspired not by images of Jesus' crucifixion, but rather by the Furies, goddesses of vengeance in Greek mythology who dispensed judgment to those who committed crimes. The format of the triptych (with its three panels) and the use of the word crucifixion nevertheless call to mind the tradition of paintings of Jesus' death. 

Consider other images of the crucifixion (here, here, and here are three). Who is at the foot of the cross in your image of the crucifixion? How are they responding to what they see?

On Facebook this week, see Francis Bacon's Three Studies for a Crucifixion.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Isaiah 50.4-9a: Listening to God

Morning by morning God wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious... (Isaiah 50:4b-5a) In the Psalter reading for The Liturgy of the Passion, the psalmist announces that the "whispering of many" is heard. The emphasis on ears and hearing in these two passages are good reminders that it is important that we listen to God and stand with God. It is the Lord God who helps me, Isaiah concludes. Who will declare me guilty?

One of the ways that artists have shown that voice of God is through a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, whispering into the ear of prophets or gospel writers or, here, David as he writes the psalms. The dove, a soft-feathered creature, is also the symbol of hope and promise in the story of Noah. It was the dove who returned to the ark with an olive twig in its beak. It is also a symbol of peace. 

That's not exactly the feel of this dove. The giant bird (compare the size of the bird to the width of David's shoulders) is balanced on one foot on David's crown. The other leg and foot are thrown out for balance. The bird's beak appears to be in David's ear, not just directing words toward the ear in hopes that David will hear. The bird is literally speaking into David's ear as he composes the psalms. 
St. Albans Psalter. 12th century. Dombibliothek Hildesheim.
This particular illumination is the frontispiece for the psalms in the St. Albans manuscript. The text is the beginning of Psalm 1: BEATUS VIR (Blessed is the man). Remember that on the day Jesus enters into Jerusalem, there were cries of "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" David and Jesus listened to God. Not for David in this illustration nor for Jesus in the gospels does listening look like the pleasant experience we might expect it to be. And yet, listening to God is what we are charged to do, remembering that it is the Lord God who helps me. That makes us blessed regardless of the size of the bird or the pain of the cross. 

Look on page 56 of the St. Albans Psalter digital facsimile here for a second version of David being inspired as a musician. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Hebrews 5.5-10: Melchizedek

You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5-10) So here's Melchizedek:

Peter Paul Rubens. The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, c. 1626. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art. 

Do you see Jesus somewhere in that? 

The story - and "story" is a bit of a stretch - of Melchizedek is told in Genesis 14. In essentially three verses: And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything. That's it for Melchizedek in Genesis.

Melchizedek is named in Psalm 110:4 and then again eight times in the letter to the Hebrews. It is in Hebrews that Jesus is named a priest "after the order of Melchizedek."   

In the painting above, Abraham (still Abram at that point) is on the left, still in armor from his encounter with the King of Sodom. Melchizedek, King of Salem ("king of justice" or "king of righteousness"), is handing bread to Abraham. These are two of the aspects where Christian theologians perceive Melchizedek as a precursor of Christ. Jesus, too, is the king of righteousness and brings bread to God's people. 

It's an interesting take on the Genesis story. I wonder how many of the original hearers of Hebrews would have recognized the name of Melchizedek when they heard it. Would we know the name if we didn't have the Hebrews passage? Does the relationship between Melchizedek and Jesus hold water for you?

Friday, March 5, 2021

Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22: They Cried

Psalm 107 isn't so specific that its lines can't be pulled out to illustrate the infinite number of things from which God has saved God's people. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. (Psalm 107:19) How many people have cried to the Lord? How many people has God saved from their distress? 

Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Guernica was painted in response to a very specific event: the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi air force in support of Francisco Franco. The town, of little or no strategic value, was attacked over three hours by 25 bombers who dropped 100,000 pounds of explosive and incendiary bombs. Another wave of bombers strafed any survivors trying to flee the village that was now only rubble. The town burned for three days. 

The mural-sized painting (approximately 11 feet by 25 feet) was commissioned in 1936 for the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Picasso was supposed to create a piece for the Spanish Pavilion that followed the Fair's theme celebrating modern technology. Instead, Picasso painted this. 

Pablo Picasso. Guernica. 1937. Madrid: Museo Reina Sofia.

They cried to the Lord in their trouble. And cried. And cried. And cried.

Psalm 107 is a song that remembers the hesed, the steadfast love, of God for God's people. The psalm calls on those who have lived through a story of salvation to worship and remember and be thankful. 

Guernica is painted in black, white and gray. No color at all. Marks on the body of the horse seem to mimic newspaper print. Picasso read the newspaper accounts that emerged from Guernica shortly after the bombing. The pro-Fascist, pro-Nazi forces worked to change the narrative. They placed empty oil barrels around the town, claiming that the citizens of Guernica burned their own town. 

The first reports were written by George Steer, a South African born journalist covering the Spanish Civil War. He wrote: The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces. Over a radius of five miles round, a detail of the raiders’ technique was to bomb separate caserios, or farmhouses. In the night these burned like little candles in the hills. All the villages around were bombed with the same intensity as the town itself, and at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica inlet, the population was machine-gunned for 15 minutes.

They cried to the Lord in their trouble. And cried. And cried. And cried.

I Corinthians 1.18-25: Stumbling Block

We preach Christ crucified, Paul wrote, a stumbling block...and foolishness. (I Corinthians 1:18) It does seem foolish to worship one who was put to death. It's not the marketing strategy that makes the most sense. Jesus - even his crucifixion and resurrection - may be too "normal" after a couple thousand years for us to really hear the scandalous nature of who it is that we worship. 

The radicality was not lost on the earliest non-Christians, though. They fully understood just how unseemly it was to claim as God (or even Son of God) one who had been crucified. 

A piece of early-century graffiti helps us see that. We think of graffiti as something spray painted, but the word graffiti comes from the Italian graffio, "a scratch."

Scratched into a plaster wall in a building on the Palatine Hill in Rome is a crucifixion scene. The figure on the cross has a human(ish) body but the head of a donkey. Also scratched into the wall are the words ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ" loosely "Alexamenos worships his god." The Y in the upper right corner has been interpreted as both a cry of pain and a pitchfork.

The image and tone seem to be ridiculing Alexamenos for worshipping one who has been (or is being) crucified. Stumbling block. Foolishness.

Though there are some who believe the graffito shows worship of other deities. There is no definitive identification of the artist or the context. We don't know who Alexamenos is or who the "artist" is. 

A stumbling block. Foolishness. That should have been the story. But Paul knew. Paul and Alexamenos may have had the last laugh.

The Alexamenos graffiti is dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century, making it among the earliest depictions of a crucifixion. The plaster panel is in the collection of the Palatine Museum in Rome, Italy.