Beauty in Potential

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This week I take the risk of sharing with you some things that are more personal. I try to do that regularly, but not often in the form of sharing my own visual work.

While as an art student in college I became fascinated with the shapes and colors of various seashells, largely through the help of a coffee table book containing high quality photos of them. The above is an example of a colored pencil study of one that I did a few years later.

More recently I became familiar with the paintings of William Dunlap of the Delta region of northwest Mississippi. To Dunlap I attribute the phrase, ‘hypothetical realism,’ words which I think well describe many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. I understand Dunlap’s phrase as referring to a desire to capture seen and known objects in a realistic way, but in imagined settings. I think the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe is evident above in my own willingness to superimpose the beautiful form and color of a shell upon an imagined seascape setting, without any shadows cast by the former upon the latter.

Notice, also above, how I am by temperament a water colorist… meaning that I am inclined to start with light tones before the dark, not only with traditional water colors and colored pencils, but even with with oils and acrylics (heresy admitted!).

Then, in 2021 and after about 35 years of neglect, I made what felt like a brave decision to attend an artist’s retreat at a nearby Benedictine Abbey, which has an art studio. I share below my effort to revisit an earlier love, expressing by it something of an unfulfilled potential. The painting is still unfinished, and this time I have approached the subject with acrylics.

Perhaps these days following the Epiphany, and our observance of the Baptism of our Lord, can be for us a time to appreciate gifts we have been given, whether of the physical and material kind we tend to associate with Christmas, or of the more spiritual kinds we may associate with the Epiphany. Both call for appreciation. But the form that appreciation takes in each case, as well as the timing with which it occurs, may well differ.


Witness of the Magi

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Peter Koenig, panel from his Christmas-Epiphany triptych


“When the wise men from the East … set out… there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road (from Matthew 2:1-12, the Gospel for this day).”

Peter Koenig, in a painting I much admire in relation to this present season, not only presents the visit by and the adoration of the Magi, as well as their presentation of gifts. He also helps us discern how our celebration of Christmas and Epiphany anticipates our observance of Holy Week and Easter.

As we know from hymns and readings, the visitors from the East brought costly offerings, including gold, incense, and myrrh. This much is obvious from a first look at Koenig’s imagery. Much more subtle are additional features of his painting that should also attract our attention. Based on the imagery in Genesis 3, note the serpent under Mary’s foot. Note also how the Christ child is wrapped in what appears to be fabric prefiguring his eventual burial shrouds. Behind the figures in the painting, we see an anticipation of the empty tomb with its stone covering rolled away. And, in front it, we seen an image of the cross portrayed as also being the tree of life, bearing the vine from which will come the cup of salvation.

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (from The Book of Common Prayer)

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.

Joining Mary’s Joy

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El Creco, The Annunciation (1600)


With three prior Annunciation images I have pointed to some aspects of the Annunciation to Mary: fear at an unexpected encounter with the divine presence; surprise and wonder about such a greeting; and, the opportunity to accept the significance of God’s visitation. Today, I want to highlight a fourth aspect of Mary’s experience of the Annunciation, her response of joy at having said, “Yes.”

It is not hard for us to admire Mary and her willing response to God’s initiative, at first in her life, and then in and for ours. But how easy is it for us to identify with Mary’s joy, reflected in the words we know as the Magnificat, her song of praise, with regard to the promise of Jesus’ birth?

For many of us, these 12 Holy Days may be a time in which we challenge ourselves to feel as ‘joyful’ as we think we should be – or, perhaps, to criticize ourselves for failing to experience the same. But what is ‘joy?’ I have an icon that depicts St. Thomas Aquinas, wherein he holds a text on which is printed, “Joy is the noblest human act.”

Joy at this time, as always, is not just a spontaneous feeling prompted by fleeting circumstances. Joy is actually an act, a choice, and a willing participation in divine initiative. For the word joy is related to the verb rejoice. God says to us during these 12 Holy Days – as God always does – I am come unto you to bless you, to bring you new life, to transform everything you think you know, and in ways you have yet to imagine.

Until we get to ‘the other side,’ and can ask Mary, herself, none of us will know what she really imagined would be part of her acceptance of God’s strange and unanticipated plan of redemption for our fallen and troubled world. What we can be most thankful for is at least one implied word that was part of Mary’s response to God’s initiative. She said, yes. With her beautiful example, and so many compelling artistic representations of the same, isn’t it a wonder why we so often find it hard to respond as she did.

In this last of the 12 Days of Christmas, let us say “yes” to God with Mary. And then, starting with the feast of the Epiphany, tomorrow, may we live into the real joy of that “yes.” Her uplifted hand, in El Greco’s painting above, says it all.

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.


Saying “Yes” to the Gift

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The spirit of attentive openness is at the heart of a 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 might 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. We can then 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.” Or, 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 fourth Annunciation image I am sharing with you in these 12 Days of Christmas, in 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 found recently in the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Advent. John the Baptizer 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 commends to us the season of Advent, in addition to Christmas ~ 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 is 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, and as God will have things be..

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.


The image above is a detail of Trygve Skogrand’s photo-collage, Bedsit Annunciation (an image I have shared before). This post is adapted from a prior post based on my homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, which can 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.

Surprised by God

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Annunciation (1850)


During the remaining of these 12 Days of Christmas, I plan to share with you further images of the Annunciation to Mary, moving on from yesterday’s post featuring the theme of Holy Fear. We might refer to these as four moments of God’s decisive intervention in human history in the Incarnation of our Lord. And in each of these four moments we may find a personal connection with our own spiritual journeys, especially as Mary prefigures the church in some very significant ways.

Yesterday, we began with the unexpected moment of Mary’s encounter with the divine presence through the holy angel, and the holy fear that such a meeting might bring. Today, we consider what may often happen next, which is introspection prompted by being surprised by such an encounter.

One of the first things that strikes me about this painting by Rossetti is how Mary’s gaze is fixed on the middle distance. And this suggests that she is focussed more upon the potential significance of what she has just been told, than upon the prior object of her attention, the angelic visitor. She is now focussed on the possible meaning of the angel’s message. And so, as she abstractly looks outward, apparently not focussed on the stem of lilies held by the angel, she looks within.

Not only does she not appear to register the significance of the lilies, suggestive as we have noted both of her purity but also of the future resurrection of her son. She also seems to overlook the potential significance of the red colored, draped, fabric upon which perhaps she may have been applying needlework, placed so prominently by the artist in the foreground. Suggestive of both a priest’s or a deacon’s stole, as well as of altar fabrics, red is traditionally the color used for Holy Week as well as for saints days commemorating martyrs. And, once again, we notice the emblem of the lilies upon the needlework.

Four details briefly worth noting: the dove depicted above the angel’s left hand, symbolic of the Holy Spirit; that Mary is draped in white, in purity and resurrection motifs; the blue color of the fabric hanging behind Mary, in what is often referred to as Marian blue; and, the way that Rossetti depicts the angelic messenger hovering above the floor.

But note her gaze! I find it arresting. Especially as we consider the reality of God having come to us, to share our nature, our being, and our lives.

Holy Fear

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Simone Martini, Annunciation {detail} (1333)


It is easy at this time of the year to think of our observance of Christmas as being all about good news, the celebration of love, and “tidings of comfort and joy.” We find a caution with regard to this assumption within so many biblical texts, but especially within Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives.

Consider for a moment how often the phrase, “fear not,” appears in Scripture. Encounters with the divine presence, whether directly as in Moses’ and Elijah’s experiences, or through the medium of an angelic messenger for Mary and Joseph, typically inspire fear about the prospect of coming into contact with the source of all goodness and holiness.

For me, one of the most compelling quotations from the Authorized or King James Version is that which we hear every year in the broadcast of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. (from Luke 1:26-35)

It is no surprise that, when she saw the angel, Mary was troubled, and wondered what form of greeting this may have been.

Simone Martini’s Annunciation altarpiece has long been one of my favorites in this genre, especially with its glorious gold-leafed background and stunningly carved woodwork. But most compelling for me is the way that God’s angel, depicted kneeling, greets Mary with the words of salutation literally cut into the surface of the painting’s wooden panel. Mary’s recoil at the encounter involves – I think – several dimensions: an innate humility along with a pious regard for the presence of divinity; an accompanying holy fear; and a natural human reticence about such an intimate encounter. Notice how she is shown pulling the collar of her cloak about her neck.

Note also how the angel bears what appears to be an olive branch of peace, and how a vase of lilies stands between them, a symbol as we have seen of both Mary’s purity and of the resurrection that will be gifted to God’s people through the Incarnation of her promised yet improbable offspring.

In considering all of the above, I encourage you to look up Exodus 24, especially verses 9-11. You may well be surprised by what you read there, an unexpected anticipation of what we celebrate at this time of year!

Martini’s complete altarpiece


If you wish to have greater access to biblical texts, and with multiple translations freely available, I recommend, with which I have no professional or financial connection.

The Holy Name

El Greco, Adoration of the Holy Name of Jesus (1579)


Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, otherwise commonly known as New Year’s Day. The traditional name for this day on the Church’s calendar refers to the event of Jesus’ circumcision and his naming on the 8th day. Most of us are well familiar with his name, but not necessarily with its origin.

As we recently noted with regard to Alexander Ivanov’s painting of the Annunciation to Joseph, when the angel appeared to the latter in a dream, Joseph was instructed to anticipate the birth of this holy child, and to name him Jesus. The following image helps us appreciate why:

Jesus is an anglicized form of the name we know from the Old Testament as “Joshua,” or from the Hebrew as “Yehshuah.” And why would this divinely promised child be named in this way? Because Joshua was God’s faithful servant who led God’s people across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

El Greco’s painting depicted above may not be immediately clear in its connection with this feast day. The letters, IHS, at the very top of the painting represent a Latin transliteration of the first letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. Figures in heaven, joined by the angels, are shown in adoration of the divinely revealed name, and its salvific significance. Human figures, including Philip II of Spain, a Pope, and other notables, are depicted in the foreground, who gather in prayerful regard for the same. Paradoxically, to the side of this pious gathering we find the yawing jaws of hell, in an image that may owe something to Hieronymus Bosch, portraying the suffering and demise of those who refuse to acknowledge that same name, and the saving reality it represents.


I think of and pray for my nephew, Joshua (‘Yeshuah’), and his family on this day.

Annunciation to Mary

Luc-Olivier Merson, Annunciation (1908)


Having begun this series with a painting of the Annunciation to Joseph by Alexander Ivanov, and having featured Luc-Olivier Merson’s painting of the Flight into Egypt, I would like to offer Merson’s less-well known but equally memorable depiction of the Annunciation to Mary.

Unlike many Annunciation paintings, Merson does not focus on the encounter between two personal beings. His Annunciation is not colored by the dynamics of male-female interaction, a theme that so absorbs our present culture, and implicit in some historical treatments of the moment. Here we have a feminine or an androgynous angel, who instead of being face-to-face with Mary, hovers above another building.

I think Merson depicts the moment just after the angel shares the news with Mary, and before she sings her magnificat. Mary is wrapped in white, suggesting her purity, but also prefiguring the burial shrouds with which her son will be wrapped. Her gaze is focused on the unlikely stem of lilies she finds on the ground, outside a dark open doorway through which she emerges. Both symbolize resurrection. Doves grace the air in the foreground, a traditional way to suggest the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.

Rather than gesturing toward Mary, the angel points to the heavens! Here we find a spiritual sign in accord with the Gospel. It depicts a call. The scene symbolizes what God is doing, and what God wants to accomplish.

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.


For a more extended reflection on Merson’s Annunciation painting, some comparison with the rather different Annunciation image on the Santana Abraxas album cover, and in relation to the Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent, click this link: Advent 4 B 14 copy_for 2022 blog_PDF

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Flight to Egypt

Luc-Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt, 1880


“Now when [the wise men] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:13-15)

With the threat of the impending massacre of the Holy Innocents, the feast day for whom we commemorated yesterday, the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, fled to Egypt. Matthew’s Gospel briefly refers to this event. Their journey to Egypt, and eventual return, recapitulated Israel’s historic sojourn to and escape from that land and the tyranny of Pharaoh.

Luc-Olivier Merson’s painting, above, depicts in a romantic 19th century way a moment on the family’s journey.


Here is a link to a prior blog posting with a more extended reflection upon Merson’s painting:


The Holy Innocents


Peter Bruegel the Younger, The Massacre of the Innocents, late 1500’s


During these twelve days commemorating biblical events that we associate with Christmas, we return to another winter image from Peter Bruegel, in this case probably by Peter the Younger. Like the Bruegel painting of the Census at Bethlehem, shared with you previously, this is another favorite of mine.

Today, December 28, is the day on which the western Church remembers the event recorded by Matthew in his Gospel (2:13-18), wherein the wicked King Herod turned his fearful wrath upon the children of Bethlehem in Judea.

Herod was rightfully insecure about his throne and reign, having been propped up in the role by the Romans and others, and apprehensive about potential rivals. Imagine his anxiety when apparently wealthy astrologers arrived from a foreign land bearing reports regarding one who would be born “King of the Jews,” especially when these visitors expressed a desire to worship this anticipated newborn.

Once again we marvel that in our calendar for the 12 Days of Christmas the Church should commemorate those, like St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, whose death gave tribute to the Lord of Life and the King of kings.

From the Book of Common Prayer:

“We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”


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