Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty five years, having served in parishes and in academia. My interests include art and theology, liturgy and spirituality, and I love to go sailing whenever I can.

The Beauty of Light

 

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John states this forthrightly in his Gospel (1:5). Light draws our attention, particularly when set against contrasting darkness. Our inclination to seek light seems to be a near-universal aspect of human nature. Notice how often people are drawn to well-lit rooms and sunlit places to sit or work.

This truism, discerned in natural human experience, is paralleled by a similar phenomenon in our experience of the sacred and of divinity. We often speak of these encounters by employing the metaphor of illumination, of ‘seeing the light.’ A popular contemporary hymn, based in part on imagery from the book of Revelation, has this refrain: “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” These are biblically-inspired, and faith-shaped, prayerful words.

Our created natural humanity is therefore disposed to seek the light, both physically and spiritually. We yearn to discern, to see and to know. And in so many ways, light is the key to perception. Light enables us to discern physical presence from absence; things that are large as compared with those that are small; things that are near as compared with things that are far; and, perhaps most experientially significant, the panoply of color as compared with the mere difference between light and dark. (This is one reason why I buy full-spectrum light bulbs, such as halogen bulbs).

Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of part of Matthew 5 prompted me to think along these lines. He renders Jesus’ familiar words, “You are the light of the world,” in this way: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”

Having shared his vocation with his disciples and first followers, Jesus shares his calling with us. In part, it is rooted in the prophet Isaiah’s vocation. When Israel was called to be a light to the nations of the world, Isaiah found that he was called to be an exemplar of this role. We know from history that neither Isaiah nor God’s people were able to fulfill that lofty and sacred summons. Jesus then accepted and fulfilled the same vocation. As members of his Body, he shares it with us, with all its holy responsibility.

Jesus’ sense of his vocation may have been founded upon his appreciation for several texts from Isaiah:

I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations… (Is.42:6)

I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Is. 49:6)

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Is. 60:3)

Matthew appears to have understood this, and quotes Jesus in this way:

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:15-16)

Luke confirms this same understanding of Isaiah’s words when he reports on Paul and Barnabas at Antioch. In Acts he portrays Paul as contending for the mission to the Gentiles while applying Isaiahs words to Barnabas and himself:

I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. (Acts 13:47)

Though we often seek the gift of light for ourselves, for our own sake, God gives light for the life of the world.

 

The image above is by Isaak Levitan, Near Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery. The hymn, “I want to walk as a child of the light,” can be found (among many other places) in The Hymnal 1982 (#490).

Subject and Object

(James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Looking through a Lattice)

I continue to be fascinated by the distinction between subject and object. That is, between being the subject of the act of seeing, and being the object of someone else’s attention.

Typically, we act as if God and divine revelation are objects of our attention. Notice the way that we often speak about how people ‘seek God’ with the hope of ‘finding’ the divine presence. And yet, of course, God is not ‘lost;’ only we are! So, I think what we really seek is the experience of being ‘found,’ not only by someone who becomes a friend or a lover but most especially by God.

As Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and his portrayal of the father in the story of the prodigal remind us, God seeks us. We can trace this idea back to the first chapters of Genesis where God seeks our primeval forebear by asking, “where art thou?”(KJV) From the beginning of Creation, we have been the object of God’s subjectivity long before we became personally conscious of it.

In two evocative paintings, James Tissot visually explores this inversion of perspective. These and many of his other 19th century watercolors curiously anticipate modern theatrical approaches to creating ‘scenes.’ His skill in this regard is most dramatically evident in his painting, What Our Savior Saw from the Cross (below). Portraying what we often think of as the decisive moment in salvation history, Tissot doesn’t show us Jesus as he suffers on our behalf. Instead, Tissot depicts the Lord’s loving regard for others who suffer because of their love for him. He who is so often the object of our devotional regard is represented as the subject of God’s attentive concern for us.

Much more subtle, yet equally significant I think, is his delightful painting, Jesus Looking through a Lattice (image at the top). I believe that this apparently whimsical image by Tissot actually embodies a profound spiritual and theological insight. For why does Tissot portray Jesus as looking at us, the viewers of this painting, peering at us through a lattice? Taking the image both literally and figuratively, has Jesus gone in to an inner chamber where he awaits us to join him? Or, have we gone out into the garden of our own pursuits while yet remaining within his view? Is he being coy, ‘spying’ on us (as we might say)? Or are we the ones who prefer to be somewhat hidden? Though both are possible, our usual instincts lead us to assume the former. Even though we are always the objects of divine loving regard, whether we are aware of it or not.

May we continue to experience the joy of being found by God.

 

The images above are by James Tissot ~ Jesus Looking through a Lattice, and What our Lord Saw from the Cross. Both water color paintings are featured in the exhibit, “James Tissot: Fashion and Faith,” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. After February 9, 2020 the exhibit moves to Paris.

The Beauty of the Word

 

A medieval monk depicts the Lord creating the cosmos while employing a builder’s compass. The Creation is no sudden or random act. God proceeds with intention and purpose, and according to pattern. As a result, the pattern of Creation reflects the pattern of divine rationality. Given how we live at a time in history when ‘feelings’ tend to be privileged, this illuminator’s image may be particularly significant.

As John’s Gospel puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).”

Surely, the monk who painted this image had John’s words in mind, as well as a rich appreciation for their meaning. Though this painting is sometimes referred to as “God the Father Measuring the Universe,” another title given for it, “God the Geometer,” may be more accurate. For the image presents a figure in human form that resembles many depictions of the incarnation of the Word, the second person of the Trinity. And so, the identity of the agent of Creation in this image may be secondary to the action of the agent.

In Sister Wendy’s view, “God created out of his own pure goodness; his only motive was to share what he was.” And so the artist depicts a “majestic and beautiful face… wholly concentrated on making the world as good as it can possibly be.” We see “God himself… supremely ordered, a beautiful God in the artist’s imagination… slowly and carefully fashioning a beautiful world.”

Here, in human form, we see the beauty of the divine being. As the Scripture-shaped Tradition of spiritual Reasoning teaches us, we see this beauty in the face of the one who became the Word made flesh.

Several biblical texts come to mind in relation to this image of the divine architect of the cosmos. In citing them, I want to point to how they illustrate this embodied vision of God’s creative handiwork.

Among these texts is Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Or consider Hebrews 1:3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Among the things that have come into being through him, and which are sustained by his word, is the nature of our humanity. We embody the same human nature as that in which the Word became flesh. The same pattern of divine rationality that is imprinted upon the form of the cosmos is imprinted upon us. Therefore, the Creator and Redeemer intends that the ‘microcosm’ who each one of us is should reflect the macrocosm of the universe, especially as it was beautifully created by the divine Architect. It is no accident that this painting was made at the same time that the great cathedrals in Europe were being built according to the same vision.

Yet, this is not the ‘full story.’ Though I have been made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28), like all others I have the strange capacity -even the inclination- to be in rebellion against the One for whom and through whom I was made.  In response, God challenges the proclivities of our fallen human nature. This challenge is memorably expressed in God’s rhetorical question to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding (Job 38:4).”

Yet, God’s final, and non-rhetorical response to our folly is filled with promise and a restatement of purpose. We find this response at the end of John’s Revelation (21:5-6): “See, I am making all things new… It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” We are among those ‘things’ made new. And God’s redemptive work transforms both space and time.

John Keble expressed this vision in the beautiful words of a poem for Epiphanytide: “When souls of highest birth | Waste their impassioned might on dreams of earth, | He opens Nature’s book, | And on his glorious Gospel bids them look, | Till by such chords as rule the choirs above, | Their lawless cries are tuned to hymns of perfect love.”

The Book of Nature has the same ‘author’ as the Book of Scripture. And the nature I inhabit has the same designer as does the Scripture that helps me know and love him. “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it: Come, let us adore him!”

 

The image above is sometimes titled “God the Geometer,” from The Bible Moralisee, ca 1220. Some homilies of mine, on which prior several prior blog posts were based, may be accessed by clicking here. The quote by Sister Wendy is from her book, Sister Wendy’s Bible Treasury. The verse from the poem by John Keble is found in The Christian Year.

 

 

Endings and Beginnings

 

“Through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God.” Think of the deeply biblical historical significance of this phrase! Think of Creation from chaos into beautiful order… And then, of its repetition in the Flood experience of Noah and his family. Think Moses and Israel’s Red Sea passage through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God. Think of Israel’s symbolic journey across the Jordan, re-living this pattern. And then think of John the Baptizer inviting sons and daughters of the covenant to come across the Jordan, and then re-enter the Promised Land as if for the first time. In each case, there is a death to one condition or circumstance, and a birth to another.

This theme lies at the heart of the readings we hear during this recent extended season. And they are expressed beautifully but also mystically in the central panel of Peter Koenig’s great painting, Christmas—Epiphany.

Notice the lower righthand portion of the panel. We find Jesus and John, with Jesus submitting to the waters of Baptism. It’s an event that begs a question. For why would Jesus be baptized? In Peterson’s The Message translation, Matthew tells us that ‘John objected to the prospect of it, saying “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!” But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.’ Jesus saw the Big Picture. The pattern was being fulfilled. Out of the waters of a kind of death, a spiritual death, would come a new birth for God’s people.

Peter Koenig beautifully depicts this in a very subtle way. If you look closely at the bottom right corner of the panel, you will see some skulls lying at the river bottom among the reeds, below the baptismal waters. You may recall seeing a skull at the base of the cross in Orthodox icons of the Crucifixion, as well as in western art. This represents Adam and our fallen human nature. Yet these skulls may also represent those Egyptians who perished in the waters of the Red Sea, when Israel was delivered into a new covenant life with God.

Based on the Gospels, we know that Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan. But in this painting, other biblically significant water is represented. At the center, Koenig depicts John’s Revelation-vision of the Lamb on the throne who is the source of Living Water. Around this throne, the faithful departed and the saints who have gone before are gathered in praise and adoration. Koenig then connects this theme of living water with the Cana wedding story, where we hear of water stored in large jars for the rites of purification. There, Jesus performs his first miracle, turning this holy water into wonderfully good wine.

Here we see the mystical connection between the Old Testament and the New, and between Baptism and Eucharist. All this is relevant for every one of us. We are hearers of the Gospel record of Jesus’ Baptism. Hearing this story –really hearing it– we are challenged to live into it, and as more than admirers of either Jesus or John. We are called to go through the same waters with him, the waters of death to our old ways of life. And with him, we are lifted up to live into a new covenant life with God, in God’s new Jerusalem.

As John puts it in the Revelation: “Then I saw… the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ … Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life’.”

 

The image above is Peter Koenig’s, Christmas-Epiphany. This post is based on my homily for my last homily as Rector of Grace Church, Grand Rapids MI, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, January 12, 2020, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Light in the Darkness

 

In his 1880 painting, Lucy-Olivier Merson portrayed the Holy Family on their Flight into Egypt. Right away we discern a focus on the themes of rest and light. In the darkness of a starry desert night, the holy child rests on Mary’s lap while she reclines in the Sphinx’s embrace. A glowing light from the holy child illuminates her face, and the chest of the Sphinx.

Like many painters, Merson employs artistic license in the service of theology. The great statue at Giza is not the only Sphinx from ancient Egypt. Yet, the artist likely had it in mind. He portrays it as it might have looked at Jesus’ birth, but in a diminished scale. The actual Giza Sphinx faces east, the direction of the rising sun. And so, in Merson’s painting, the monument is aptly illuminated by the light from the long awaited Morningstar ~ the ‘dawn from on high’ that will break upon us in the Christ child.

The ancient Sphinx’s head cloth and beard are shown intact but chipped, a neglected condition consistent with the drifting sand pushed up against the monument. The face of the figure is distinctively turned upward, we might even say inquiringly, toward the stars above. The figure of Joseph is shown asleep. His head is covered and his eyes shielded from the image of the ancient Egyptian divinity. And yet, his heart and mind remain open to angelic messengers. His inner spirit is attuned to the God who called him here, while the embers of the small fire emit a wisp of smoke, moving skyward in the dark night. With both the face of the child, and the depiction of the fire, Merson reminds us of the Light that shines in the darkness. The vocation of this Light is to illumine all people, in clear contrast to the idols of this world.

Merson’s painting can help us perceive how we often rest upon the natural and humanly-made things of this world ~ upon the monuments and achievements of our forebears as well as upon the comfort and beauty of places we love. But we must not cling to them! For we are now a covenant people, called to live in a new and promised land. Not a dwelling place we can see or touch, but one that is nevertheless real. The full dimensions, meaning and purpose of this promised land are not yet apparent, but remain articles of promise and a source of continuing epiphany and disclosure.

Being members of the Body of Christ, and of the renewed Israel, we have been called out. We have been called out of many forms of ‘Egypt,’ to live in a new and promised land. This journey challenges us to grow and change, rather than remain comfortable where we are. Yet, we find lots of ways to rationalize the continuing rule of the Pharaohs of this world. Too easily we make ourselves at home within the sheltering embrace of stone-cold and decaying kingdoms. But the God who calls us to journey through darkness is also the God who speaks to us through angels at night.

 

The image above is of Luc-Olivier Merson’s, Rest on the Flight into Egypt. This post is based on my homily for the second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 5, 2020, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

To See Spiritual Light

 

I first learned about the monumental sculptures and the suspended mobiles of Alexander Calder during high school in the early 1970’s. My school was in western Massachusetts, and I remember some weekend trips when I saw a couple of his large outdoor sculptures being built at a metal foundry in Connecticut. To me, Calder’s work continues to suggest a delight with the world and a generous appreciation for the beauty within it.

Calder approached the creation of public sculpture in a unique way. His largest pieces are often set in the center of cities, placed on plazas between modern office buildings. We have a beautiful example here in Grand Rapids, with another large one in the same bright red color nearby in Chicago. Many of Calder’s large outdoor “stabile” sculptures provide a lyrical counterpoint to the linear and grid-like facades of the surrounding office buildings.

We know that monumental sculptures from earlier times often portray honored heroes, sometimes on horseback. Perhaps the most dramatic and newsworthy examples in our own day are some Civil War legacy moments in the deep South. I think of the one in Lee Square, New Orleans, and the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Memphis, both recently removed. In these cases, major post-Civil War statuary has been an object of contention because of negative historical associations.

By contrast, Calder’s large works are not tethered to historical occasions. Instead, they are abstract, and point to transcendental ideas rather than to memorialized national events. They don’t simply draw attention to themselves as objects of regard. Calder’s plaza sculptures do more. They lead the observer’s eyes to notice the interplay between his work and the spaces around them, as well as their contrast with nearby buildings. One doesn’t just view these sculptures; one interacts with them, and with the larger context of their placement.

Here, we must note a paradoxical aspect of all public sculpture, which indicates something more about us than it does about the art. Many people work everyday in buildings adjacent to where sculptural works are situated. But these workers are just as capable of being inattentive to these pieces of art as they are to their parking spaces, or to the doors of their offices. With the soaring heights and reaching curves of his public monuments, Calder’s sculptures are expressively shaped and tremendously uplifting. But our focus on our work and our worries, and on the practical things we need to do, blinds us! And it diverts our attention from something truly beautiful, right there in front of us.

I note all this because the same thing can happen when we encounter the first verses of John’s Gospel. In what is often called the ‘prologue’ to his Gospel, John has written a passage shaped by poetic beauty and filled with lofty theology. Yet, we have a tendency to focus on what is immediate and practical, and on what seems narrowly relevant to our everyday concerns. And so, we can ‘pass by’ this Gospel ‘work of art’ just as people hurry past the great Calder downtown, absorbed with getting to our ‘work.’ In both cases, something sublime lies before us, ready for us to engage with. But sometimes we don’t see the sublime because we aren’t really looking for it!

 

The image above is of Alexander Calder’s stabile, Le Grande Vitesse. This post is based on my homily for the first Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

He Comes to Us Unrecognized

 

It looks like a scene right out of the Christmas hymn, “In the bleak midwinter.” Peter Bruegel has evocatively painted the arrival of Mary and Joseph at Bethlehem, to participate in the census. It gives us a wonderful way to consider the Christmas Gospel. As Luke presents the story, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth are anchored in world history. Yet, as Bruegel shows us, God’s extraordinary entrance into the world in the Messiah’s birth happens in the midst of the ordinary.

Peter Bruegel’s painting is true to the Gospel, even if he portrays the scene in a 16th century northern Dutch village. He helps us realize that Mary and Joseph did not arrive in town that evening with all the attention focused on them. Just like our lives, and as Peter Bruegel portrays folks in his own day, the world around Joseph and Mary was focused upon itself.

Notice how Bruegel renders the scene: it’s early evening on a cold winter’s day in northern Europe. The sun is setting behind the great tree, at what might be about 4:00 pm. Having crossed the surface of a frozen pond, in the lower right, the Holy Family is just arriving at Bethlehem. To the left, in the direction they are headed, we see a table outside the inn that provides a temporary office for the traveling magistrate. A small crowd gathers there, to be included in the census. Their varying types of clothing suggest they have come from different places. To approach that inn and table, Joseph and Mary must go between several wagons, which are loaded with hay and grain, barrels of beer, and firewood. In the lower left corner, two hogs are being slaughtered, perhaps for an upcoming feast or for use in the kitchen of the inn.

This latter detail may be significant. For it’s worth noting how common it is in nativity paintings to find coded reminders of the Passion story that lies ahead. In Israel and for Jews, it would have been lambs or sheep; here, in northern Holland it is hogs. But either way, the child to be born this night is destined to be led as an animal to slaughter, as an atonement for an unknowing world – just the kind of world into which he arrived on a cold winter’s night.

Equally oblivious to the arrival of the Holy Family is the rest of the village: children everywhere are at play – some skating and sliding on the nearby pond and others playing on the frozen river up to the left. And all around them are men and women working at various chores and duties, trying to keep themselves alive. Across that frozen river in the upper left, some tradespeople are carrying bags of goods to be sold, while two others move a sled full of similar items in the opposite direction. In the upper center, a group stands around an open fire, and to the right of them another group may be preparing for a hunt.

In this northern Dutch version of winter in Bethlehem, the world of these people is not so very different from ours. Just like them, our focus tends to be upon ourselves, upon our daily activities of tasks and duties. So we miss the sheer wonder of the world around us. And, we miss the mysterious and unexpected presence of the Holy One in our midst. No one in Bruegel’s painting notices the arrival of Mary and Joseph!

It is just as John wrote in his Gospel: “He was in the world, and… yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

 

The image above is of Peter Bruegel’s Census at Bethlehem (1566). This post is based on my homily for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Acceptance with Joy

 

“Look,” says the prophet, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” What a strange promise! How could the birth of a child be a gift for a troubled world?

This is the kind of promise that Mary received from the Angel Gabriel. And it is the kind of promise that every one of us receives when we are called to acknowledge and accept that same gift. During this Advent season we have reflected on how there are a number of aspects of our response to God’s call, and to the promise of God’s gift to us.

Fear can often be our first reaction, followed then by wonder and uncertainty about the fit between God’s promise and our own suitability for receiving it. By attentiveness to God’s Grace, our uncertainty can be transformed into a humility ~ a humility that is willing to accept the Word of Promise and the Call to receive it. And if we come that far, if we are willing to believe and remain attentive, we may experience a wonderful moment. It is in Mary’s fourth response to God’s Word of Call. It is quite simply, Joy! There is no other word for it. Both Mary and Joseph, each in their own way, accept the unlikely and unexpected word of promise. And by accepting and receiving God’s will for what it is, they find joy.

Over the course of this Advent, I have shared with you four images of the Annunciation to Mary of the promised gift of a child ~ a child who would be God with us. In the image above, El Greco beautifully captures the sublime quality of the moment. Having accepted God’s Word in humility, Mary’s eyes and her whole being are uplifted up to receive the message. Her up-turned hand says it all! The gilded and hovering angel points upward, in the direction where all this is supposed to go, to the realm of Spirit. This is where the Lord will ascend through his Resurrection, taking us and our humanity with him into the very being of God.

Joy may not be the defining feature of our lives today. Yet, we can find the fullness of joy in the gift we celebrate this week. For we receive a gift whose meaning and value we can never fully anticipate in advance.

To this gift, Mary says “Yes!” And, with her, we can say, “yes,” as well. Yes to God’s Word that comes to us as both promise and call – a promise that he will be with us always, as we accept him for who He really is. And, a call for us to become new persons in him. For in him we find a spiritual maturity that this world can never give.

In raising our hearts in assent to God’s promises, and by receiving God’s call to be transformed by the Spirit, we grow. We grow into that quiet joy which was Mary’s, instilled by the Angel’s visit. Behold – a virgin has conceived, and has borne a Son, and we call his name Immanuel – for God is with us!

 

The image above is of El Greco’s Annunciation (1600). This post is based on my homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Attentive Openness

 

The spirit of attentive openness is at the heart of the third aspect of Mary’s response to God’s call through the Angel Gabriel. God’s call often challenges us to live in a different way; or try and be a different person, especially in our relationships with our family, our friends and those with whom we work. Receiving this call, we can react at first in fear at what this call will mean in practice. We can also respond with uncertainty, wondering about our worthiness or suitability for what God may have in mind for us.

But we can also see that —in faith— we are able to go into the heart of our fear, and find God’s power. Receiving God’s grace, we may move beyond relying on our own strength, and not depend upon our estimate of our own abilities and worthiness for what God may have in mind. And we can choose to respond to God’s gracious invitation into the Spirit’s redeeming work, just as Mary did, by saying, “Yes!” As John Lennon so simply captured the spirit of it, in the words of his famous song, “Let it be!” As Mary said to God through the Angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy Word.”

This is the spirit of Mary’s response to the message of the angel as portrayed in the third image I am sharing with you this Advent ~ Trygve Skogrand’s photo-collage, pictured above. The artist has skillfully juxtaposed a traditional painted figure onto a contemporary scene. We see a simplicity and spirit of humility in Mary’s posture, as she kneels in her plain gown. In the plain ‘bed-sit’ room in which she prays, we notice her uplifted eyes. They are now focused on the divine source of the message she is receiving.

Attentiveness is key to meaningful perception, just as we find in the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Advent. John sends his disciples to Jesus with what should be our most persistent question ~ “are you the One?” ‘Are you the One for whom we are looking, and whom we are awaiting?’ Notice Jesus’ response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” For they only hear and see if they are attentive. This is one reason why the Church sets aside this season of Advent ~ to encourage our attentiveness, so that we can hear and see, and then accept God’s Word to us.

“Let it be as God would have it.” Let things be as God wills. Let God be God! Perhaps nothing will be so hard in our lives, as to say those words in faith and in humility. Our pride objects! Our desire to be at the center of reality intrudes. But to say, “Let it be…,” in faith and in humility, is to return to the Garden of Creation Grace. And it is also to begin to live forward into the fullness of the Kingdom, as God would have things be.

 

The image above is a detail of Trygve Skogrand’s photo-collage, Bedsit Annunciation (an image I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

God’s Word of Hope

 

Remember God’s call to Moses, through the burning bush. Remember God’s call to Isaiah in the Temple. And remember God’s call to Jeremiah. In each of these encounters, when a divine invitation and word of hope comes to those who would become prophets, they react in a similar way. Each of them responds with fear, just like the reaction we see in Simone Martini’s Annunciation painting of Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel (featured in my prior blog post). Yet, in these call passages we see Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah respond in a second way: each of them is overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness at being called to serve the Lord. For in our hearts and our minds, we as God’s people do not always hear or receive what the Lord intends to be a word of hope as a hopeful message.

During this season of Advent I am once again reflecting on four Annunciation paintings. Here, I invite you to consider Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of the angel’s visitation to Mary, calling her to be a servant in God’s ongoing work of redemption. Observe Mary’s response to the angel and its contrast with Simone Martini’s painting (featured in my prior posting). In Martini’s Annunciation, we see an image portraying fear – Mary clutching the top of her cloak turning away from the angel and yet not able to take her eyes off the divine messenger. In Rossetti’s Annunciation (above), we see Mary looking in a different direction. Her gaze is off into the middle distance, and we can tell that she is not looking at anything in particular, ‘out there.’ Instead, she is looking within.

When encountering the holiness, righteous and purity of God, we may experience not only fear about change that might lie ahead. Very likely we will also feel a sense of our own unworthiness. Sensing the glory of God, we will become more aware of what fall’s short of God’s glory within us. When the Spirit invites us to experience transformation back into God’s own likeness, we are called to face and then set aside all that stands in the way of this positive change. In the Gospels we learn how God’s Word came through John the Baptizer’s ministry as a call to repent. We hear the same call to turn toward renewal in our own day.

Notice what we see in the angel’s hand. When inviting Mary to bear the Word of God for the sake of the world, the angel holds lilies. Lilies are a sign of the resurrection. We also see the prominent red sash that Mary may have been stitching. It bears an image of the same lilies, along with a vine that may recall the ‘Tree of Jesse’ motif (inspired by Isaiah 11). But here they are set against a red background – a sign of the passion that lies ahead. This suggests the path of suffering which the ‘Son of Man’ must walk so that we might experience the restoration and transformation of our fallen nature in his likeness.

 

The image above is a detail of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, The Annunciation (a painting I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.